REVIEW: Wild Mountain Thyme [2020]

Rating: 5 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 103 minutes
    Release Date: December 11th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Lionsgate UK / Bleecker Street Media
    Director(s): John Patrick Shanley
    Writer(s): John Patrick Shanley / John Patrick Shanley (play “Outside Mullingar”)

Who’s going to kill the crows?

Ireland is full of history. Take that statement in a literal sense with centuries of rolling hills, struggles, and people or a figurative one leaning more towards the realm of memories and ghosts. As Tony (Christopher Walken)—our sporadic narrator through an obtuse framing device that sets most of John Patrick Shanley‘s Wild Mountain Thyme (adapted from his own play “Outside Mullingar”) as flashback despite portraying it as present-day—says, “If an Irishman dies in the middle of telling a story, he just might come back.” So the fact that he and his neighbors are passing away in quick succession and thus forced to decide the future of their adjacent farms is about more than mere land or inheritance. Their properties hold family spirits their owners protect.

That’s why Tony must consider whether or not his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan)—who’s lived and worked there his entire life—is the right choice as steward. The neighbors don’t have such qualms. Their farm will go to their daughter Rosemary (Emily Blunt). She practically runs it herself anyway and has shown no signs of ever wanting to stop. She’s happy there riding her wild horse and peering in on the man she’s loved unrequitedly since childhood. Rosemary therefore holds out hope that Anthony will finally look across the fields and see her like she sees him even though everyone else tells her it’s a fool’s fantasy. She sees a husband who will make her happy. Tony sees a lifelong bachelor ending the farm’s Reilly-owned legacy.

So he believes the correct choice is selling it to his American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm) instead. Why? Because he’s a successful and ambitious man who possesses the charisma that will find a wife, have children, and keep the farm in the family. It doesn’t matter that Adam has no farming experience. It doesn’t matter that he has no idea what it means to live in a small town as evidenced by renting the most impractical car to drive up the dirt path upon visiting. Tony only cares about the family name. Is it some archaic patriarchal sense of duty or a more lyrically poetic desire to know he and his late wife can reunite there in the afterlife without worrying about strangers getting in the way.

This line of thinking is therefore simultaneously romantic and absurd. But then so is the film itself. With wild tonal shifts from earnestness to melodrama to clear-cut parody, Wild Mountain Thyme is all over the place in a way that had me believing my lack of Irish knowledge was keeping me at arm’s length from truly appreciating what was going on. I’m not so sure that’s the case, however, after discover how the Broadway run of “Outside Mullingar” was drubbed in the Irish press despite receiving glowing marks in America. It probably doesn’t help that the saccharinely comedic moments are so overwhelmingly silly with broad-stroke metaphors (for a man unsure of his love for a woman, the symbolism he uses for their identities is indisputable) conjuring perpetual eye-rolls.

There’s the comparison point between the shyly stoic, pragmatic men of Ireland opposite the confident, loudly forceful men of America. Animals play a huge role as stand-ins for personalities, passions, and insecurities whether swans, bees, horses, or dogs. And everyone seems content keeping secrets so as not to seem vulnerable as though acting erratically crazy is a better alternative. So prepare yourself for a lot of knowing stares devoid of words or highly charged exchanges where one party provokes another into speaking his/her mind only for them to double-down on refusing to comply. Very little therefore happens despite so many deaths, faux pas, and frustrating silences. That Anthony and Rosemary even have a chance of ending up together is weirder still since both seem desperate for an escape.

Here are two beautiful people living on beautiful land and they act as though it’s a prison. Do they leave? No. Something always keeps them tethered instead. Is that something each other? You bet. They both know it too even if she’s the only one willing to admit it. They remain because they have yet to confront their feelings for one another. Whether they do it now or on their deathbeds, neither will be able to move on until they do. So they pine for the chance. They wallow in isolation praying the other will crack first and declare their love aloud only to retreat further and further away until giving up might be the only viable option. It might be easier too. Loss is better than losing.

What’s so frustrating, however, is that only a fool would think they weren’t fated lovers. They have to try to stay out of each other’s arms—so of course Tony gives up on grandchildren. Anthony not marrying Rosemary presumes he won’t marry anyone. And while the film willingly stumbles through inherently easy jokes (“Are you gay?”), the difficult truth for why proves outright flabbergasting. I had to literally question whether or not I was still awake since no one in their right mind would green-light such a ludicrously out-of-left-field climax (foreshadowing or not) once let alone twice. A ham-fistedly strained romantic triangle is one thing. Writing a Furry love story without having the guts to truly make it one is another. Is Shanley just having a tone-deaf laugh?

Everyone else is too if true. The romance is awkward in its normalization of gendered domestic dynamics and yet Blunt and Dornan seem to have no problems reinforcing them. He’s fun being a complete doofus and her attempts to coax him along without just asking him to marry her herself is entertaining in its futility, but it’s hard to honestly care about them getting together when that’s ultimately the default. That they aren’t together is thus more interesting and perhaps should be the point rather than a means for comic missteps along a tired journey towards inevitable bliss. Shanley wrote two people in love and then jumped through hoops to figure out ways to keep them apart. It’s a strange, almost self-defeating exercise with very little payoff.

[1] Jamie Dornan (L) stars as Anthony and Emily Blunt (R) stars as Rosemary in John Patrick Shanley’s WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Kerry Brown / Bleecker Street
[2] Christopher Walken (L) stars as Tony and Emily Blunt (R) stars as Rosemary in John Patrick Shanley’s WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Kerry Brown / Bleecker Street
[3] Emily Blunt (L) stars as Rosemary and Jon Hamm (R) stars as Adam John Patrick Shanley’s WILD MOUNTAIN THYME, a Bleecker Street release Credit: Kerry Brown / Bleecker Street

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