There's been some talk lately among movie columnists about the state of American independent cinema, and how the whole movement has become infected with "star syndrome," as small, regional films are taken over by well-known actors looking for a break from blockbusters. It's tempting—but misguided—to think of Julian Goldberger's The Hawk Is Dying as a case in point. It stars beloved character actor Paul Giamatti, playing a custom-car-upholstery salesman who becomes convinced that the act of properly training a red-tailed hawk will bring meaning to a life marked by unimaginable tragedy. This is the kind of role that attracts stars looking to stretch, yet it's hard to imagine anyone who'd do it more justice than Giamatti. The Hawk Is Dying is a fragile little movie, occasionally ridiculous, but with M. Night Shyamalan's Lady In The Water, Giamatti proved that he can make even the weirdest material believable.
In The Hawk Is Dying, Giamatti puts that talent to use in scenes where he holds serious, painful conversations while tethered to a squawking, flapping bird of prey. Writer-director Goldberger based The Hawk Is Dying on a Harry Crews novel, and the movie has a little of Crews' bruised Southern Gothic style about it. The story is set in Gainesville, Florida, and it sports a well-defined sense of place, with university professors and full-on rednecks mingling in wood-paneled rooms, removed from the city. But the at-times astoundingly naturalistic rhythm of the film gets disrupted by a plot that turns jarringly intense halfway through, pivoting on the actions of Giamatti's autistic nephew, played by Michael Pitt. (Who, while basically fine, really is more of a distraction in this part than a less-familiar face would've been.) Between the barrage of falconry facts and everyone's generally nonsensical behavior, The Hawk Is Dying almost begs to be mocked.
Goldberger saves it with a zigzag approach to storytelling, which drops viewers into scenes without overexplaining anything; cinematographer Bobby Bukowski helps with an uncanny understanding of how the middle of nowhere can look and feel pitch black, interrupted by eerie pools of light. And then there's Giamatti, who grounds the story in the simple needs of a lonely man who likes to talk to his amiable, echolalic nephew, because Pitt seems to be the only one who shares the heartbreak that comes with training a bird. Giamatti invests so much in bonding with this wild thing, and if it dies or flies away, that's it. Once it's gone, it's gone.