In the plodding indie effort The Hawk is Dying, Paul Giamatti stars as George Gattling, a man who owns a car repair shop and lives with his obese and self-pitying sister, Precious, and her autistic son. The bright spot of Gattling’s mundane life is his hobby of capturing hawks and attempting to “break” them to his will, a process that is as draining for the human trainer as it is for the bird.
A personal tragedy only strengthens Gattling’s resolve to refuse food and sleep until the hawk submits to eating from his hand, and his mental unraveling is swift and brutal. Set in central Florida, the film’s inhabitants are raw and unglamorous. Giamatti and Michelle Williams (as Giamatti’s uncommonly compassionate friend and sometimes-lover, who we repeatedly see sleeping on a filthy bare mattress) deliver compelling performances, rendering characters that are as relatable as they are pathetic. The film’s aura of realism in all its depressing glory is disturbingly effective, but that isn’t enough to redeem its fractured plot and ham-handed symbolism.