If Paul Giamatti wrapped in a towel epitomizes anti-glamour, then Julian Goldberger's brilliantly acted, close adaptation of Harry Crews' strange 1973 novel about a man and his bird must be among the least glamorous feature films ever made. It ain't pretty, but its naturalism is consistent with the source material, and makes for a refreshing change from the usual Hollywood gloss.
Having achieved everything a successful man is supposed to get out of life big house, fancy car, successful business George Gattling (Giamatti), the auto-trim king of Gainesville, Florida, is nevertheless living a lonely, spiritually empty life with his sister, Precious (Rusty Schwimmer), and her autistic adult son, Fred (Michael Pitt). The only thing George has that's remotely close to a romantic involvement is his casual sexual relationship with Betty (Michelle Williams), a psychology student young enough to be his daughter. George has been raising Fred as if he were his own since Fred's father (Marc Macaulay) deserted his family 20 years earlier. And though Fred only speaks in rare, single-word non sequiturs, he shares George's one real passion: falconry, the age-old sport of kings. In the training of hawks and falcons, a sport unchanged for thousands of years, George senses a continuity with the past that he feels is lacking in the modern world; if he could only trap and train a hawk of his own without killing it (as George has learned the hard way, trapped hawks will sometimes starve to death rather than submit), he might regain his confidence in the proper order of things. But no sooner do Fred and George capture an enormous red-tailed hawk in the nature preserve near George's house than a terrible, inexplicable tragedy occurs, one that nearly destroys George's faith altogether. Rather than give up on his project, George becomes more determined to regain his spiritual bearings by "manning" this magnificent hawk: tethering it to his wrist and denying it sleep and sustenance until the bird willingly steps onto George's gloved fist and submissively takes food from his hand. And in order to better train the fowl, George also foregoes food and sleep, behavior that leads everyone to suspect he's completely lost his mind.
Often mentioned in the same breath as fellow literary tough-guy icon Charles Bukowski, whose poems, stories and novels have served as the basis for over 10 feature films, Harry Crews has never before been tapped for a movie adaptation strange, given the novelist's enduring popularity among filmmakers like Sean Penn. But while his books are filled with bizarre characters whose obsessions drive them to the far limits of experience subjects ripe for the big screen his themes, often ruminations on the nature of violence and love, are both literary and elusive. Goldberger, who made his debut with the similarly gritty and deliberately unpolished TRANS (2000), tries to pull the novel's concerns to the surface, but much of its subtlety is lost. Giamatti, however, delivers yet another superb performance, turning what might have been a freak show into an unexpectedly moving experience. leave a comment --Ken Fox