Hawk is Dying (2006): Julian Goldberger’s Sophomore Jinx

At its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, The Hawk Is Dying was dismissed by most critics and immediately developed negative word-of-mouth.

The film is getting a second chance to be seen by international critics at the Fortnight series of the Cannes Film Festival.

Writer-director Julian Goldberger’s 1999 debut, “Trans,” was a modest, contemplative film that showed promise. Hence, many critics deemed The Hawk Is Dying Goldberger’s sophomore jinx. My initial reaction to the film was mixed. Despite honorable intent, the narrative is flawed, the symbolism heavy-handed, and worst of all, the central performance by Paul Giamatti self-indulgent.

Yet there’s something truly independent about the picture, very much in the spirit of 1980s indies. Thus, sending it back to the editing room, where it should be trimmed and lose about 15-20 minutes could vastly improve the film (whose running time is 112 minutes!) without damaging at all its coherence.

Based on Southern writer Harry Crews’s 1973 semi-autobiographical novel, which is set in Central Florida, The Hawk Is Dying is a study of obsession, centering on George Gatling (Giamatti), a man whose all-consuming relationship with falconry borderlines madness. George goes on and on about the history of falconry, to the point of alienating all those around him, though, at first, the motivation for his “bizarre” conduct is unclear.

George is the owner of a Gainseville’s car upholstery shop, but clearly his passion in life is capturing wild hawks and training them. It’s quickly established that his knowledge of hawks is limited and it’s doubtful whether he is good at it; his earlier birds have all died. In fact, when the story opens, Fred (Michael Pitts), George’s mentally challenged nephew, is arranging an elaborate memorial for his latest casualty, a sparrow hawk. Unfazed (to say the least), George recruits Fred’s help and traps a unique red-tailed hawk.

The first reel is particularly weak since there is not much dialogue. The movie improves, however, later on, when other characters are introduced, thus broadening the view of George as a complex and troubled man trying to cope with tragedy. The three women in George’s life are his mother (Ann Wedgeworth), his obese sister Precious, with whom he shares an uncomfortable existence, and Betty (Michelle Williams), a young psychology student who’s George occasional sex partner.

That all the film’s characters are misfits comes as no surprise, but no help in terms of emotional engagement. The only meaningful relationship in George’s life is with his nephew. In every possible way, George relates to Fred as a father rather than uncle.

The film’s most disturbing sequence is not between George and the hawk but between Fred and Betty, a long scene in which Fred gets to experience untapped signs of sexual desire, after which he drowns. It’s not clear whether Betty is directly responsible for his death. As a result of this tragic misfortune, George becomes even more single-minded in his quest to train the bird to the detriment of his existing human relationships and his own health.

The Hawk is Dying deals with alienation and the desperate need to connect, but it also says something about deviating from conventional forms of grievance. After Fred’s freak drowning, Refusing to join his family in the traditional grieving process, George channels his guilt into a sanity-testing obsession with falconry; he goes on a fast until he can get the hawk to eat.

Though fraught with angst and loaded with symbolism, The Hawk Is Dying is not hard to comprehend. Problem is, the film is too self-conscious and self-indulgent. As director, Goldberger allows Giamatti to indulge in excessive emotional explosions that call attention to his actorish technique rather than the character he plays. For at least one third of the yarn, George is seen walking with a hawk on his shoulder; some of his monologues and training sessions could be cut by half.

Shot by the talented Bobby Bukowski, the film flaunts a deliberately raw, almost austere, visual style that’s congruent with the essentially bleak narrative. No so Affonso Goncalves’s chopped editing, which leaves a lot to be desired and often prevents viewers from getting involved.

On the plus side, Goldbergers observational strategy refuses to judge George by conventional standards of sanity and normalcy. Consistently tense, and in moments unbearably intense, The Hawk Is Dying is not easy to watch. Yet the film has powerful moments and operates on several levels. It could be taken straight as a story of a troubled man or interpreted in a more metaphoric way as a man in desperate need to regain his manhood and self-esteem.