We all enjoy movies that, if we had to write a review, we’d pan. Mine range from ’60s musical “Bye Bye Birdie” to Richard Curtis’ “Love Actually,” which has become a family Christmas staple. (That scene between Laura Linney and Rodrigo Santoro? Awful.)
During my ’80s stint at Film Comment Magazine, we published several directors’ guilty pleasures, from Michael Powell to Stephen King, as well as John Waters’ list of high-end art films, which included both Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema” and Woody Allen’s “Interiors.”
The latest entry to my guilty pleasures list is Bronx-born playwright John Patrick Shanley’s “Wild Mountain Thyme,” a sublimely over-the-top, candy-cane romance that makes no sense whatsoever. It’s possible to imagine that a canny mainstream Hollywood director like Norman Jewison could have transformed Shanley’s adaptation of his 2014 Tony-nominated play “Outside Mullingar” (written after he turned 60 and inspired by his family’s farm in County Mayo) into something as wondrous as Shanley’s 1988 Oscar-winning “Moonstruck,” one of the most popular movies watched at home during the pandemic.
But it’s unlikely. Shanley directed this movie, and it’s telling that he hired cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt, with whom he collaborated on “Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990), one of the worst movies Tom Hanks ever made. “Wild Mountain Thyme” more resembles that wildly careening romantic adventure than Shanley’s other play-to-film, sober nuns’ story “Doubt,” which producer Scott Rudin and cinematographer Roger Deakins steered inside a more dramatic lane, yielding five 2009 Oscar nominations for not only Shanley’s screenplay but Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Amy Adams, and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” pushes you off balance right at the start: the movie opens with touristy drone shots of craggy Irish cliffs accompanied by the voice of Christopher Walken: “Welcome to Ireland. My name’s Tony Reilly, and I’m dead!”
As always, Walken is delightful as the cranky patriarch who is trying to figure out who should take over the family farm when he is gone. He’s not sure his spaced-out and still unmarried son Anthony Reilly (Jamie Dornan) is up to the task. No one in the community can figure out why Anthony isn’t interested in marrying his gorgeous red-haired neighbor, Rosemary Muldoon (Emily Blunt), who has loved him all her life. In a subplot added for the movie, Anthony gets some competition for her affections when Tony invites his handsome American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm) to visit. (Yes, that’s just one of Shanley’s references to John Ford’s nonpareil Irish romance “The Quiet Man.”)
Inevitably for a movie as sincerely addlepated as this one, critics piled on with rare abandon, including IndieWire’s David Ehrlich:
This sometimes enchanting (but always demented) soda farl of banter and blarney couldn’t be a broader caricature of Irish culture if it were written by the Keebler elves and directed by a pint of Guinness.
Anthony looks at Rosemary as a brother might his sister, which is as far from romantic as the movie’s accents are from authentic. “Wild Mountain Thyme” is the kind of film you want to love, just as you want these two characters to fall in love, and it’s simultaneously exasperating and original that they don’t go about their courtship in the usual fashion.
These beautiful farmers aren’t keen to reveal much to each other, themselves or the audience. Maybe the cows know.
Because I happily grinned throughout this movie, I was curious to know just what Shanley thought he was doing. I called him up at his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
When he watched “The Quiet Man” again, he said, “It struck me that John Wayne was wearing a white coat in Ireland. Why? He’s an American. He leaps out of the frame from everybody else. I had the American [Hamm] give [Anthony] a white coat, and out of politeness he wears it. It becomes a third-act symbol for him.”
Shanley never goes with what’s in fashion. When he shot “Joe Versus the Volcano,” he said, “Highly mobile cameras were in vogue directorally. I said to the cameraman, ‘Treat the cameras as if they’re 5,000 pounds.’ At the time they were quick cutting. I did a two-minute master shot of Tom Hanks coming out of a building, hugging a woman and a dog and driving away. The studio went crazy. Warner Bros. was doing a Chevy Chase Christmas Lampoon movie; I was at the other end of the spectrum.”
Luiz C. Ribeiro/Invision/AP
Shanley’s not trying to be cantankerous. “I’m trying to stick to what I find human,” he said. “I’m not trying to make everybody else’s movie, or the one new thing. I’m trying to make my movie. It’s going to be an individual thing that’s not evident to everybody. Most movies are written and shot in a similar way. And that makes them not true to the core of the filmmaker. And if you make something that is your personal truth, first of all, you may go down in flames, but it will be yours. ‘Moonstruck’ and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme,’ they’re my truth.”
What about “Doubt”? “That was made as a different kind of play,” he said. “It’s a narrow world, I would not violate that world by including the expansiveness and poetry I contain. I’m making a film about these people I knew. I had to honor them, and I did.”
“Wild Mountain Thyme,” on the other hand, is an unabashed romantic confection, if not a romantic comedy. “I call it a human comedy,” said Shanley. “It’s like ‘Moonstruck.’ It’s about family, as opposed to simply a love story. The movie dwells at length on the relationship between Chris Walken and Jamie Dornan. As he’s dying, passing away, and her mother dies, it’s the passing of the torch from generation to generation.”
The other switch from the conventions of the rom-com is a central role reversal. “In real life, pulling off a romance is hard, you know what I mean?” he said. “Why should it be any easier for a film? One of the peculiarities of this particular story is that Jamie’s the girl, and Emily’s the guy. She’s chasing him. He’s the one that can’t give in, won’t give in, no matter how the protagonist tries her best.”
Mostly, Shanley loved taking his stage play into the real world. “You can’t do what cinema can do,” he said. “You can actually go to Ireland and shoot those people with that white light and weather and beautiful blue skies and rainbows. This isn’t pre-recorded sounds of animals mooing in the distance and dogs barking. There’s a scene with Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt and a bull. That bull is the size of a small car and had a big brass ring in its nose. ‘He’s a gentle as a lamb,’ the farmer kept saying. No one believed him. ‘Let’s get this scene done!’ But when the bull looks at them and they look at him, there’s an exchange of energy there.”
So many films today show artificial environments, he said. But at the same time, this movie is not presenting a naturalistic real world. “I don’t know what naturalism is,” he said. “It’s important and good to be reminded from time time of the incredible beauty of the natural world, of an Australian border collie, donkeys, and creatures other than humans that depend on us as we depend on them.”
As for casting New Yorker Walken as an Irish patriarch, “I didn’t hire him for his accent,” said Shanley. “I hired him for his soul. Chris Walken is a very individual powerful human being, very sensitive, very quiet. There’s something very magical and special in him. I’ve always described my father, the favorite person I have ever known, as only having one foot in this world.”
In one key father-son confrontation, Walken breaks down in his son’s arms. “We were very careful in the scene to give him all the time and space he needed so that he and Jamie could get where they needed to go. We shot the meat of the scene, two or three takes, and Jamie was keeping himself open so the camera could see Chris. I took him aside and said, ‘On the next take, manhandle him.’ ‘Are you sure?’ In the next take he fell in and embraced Chris. At that moment Chris completely broke down.”
Finally, according to Shanley, the theme of the movie is: “Everybody thinks they’re something they’re not. Which is true. People seem perfectly normal, but she thinks she’s a swan and he thinks he’s a bee. People mostly function on two or more tracks: one is what other people see, the other is what they see about themselves. Somebody walks by me on the street, they see something I will never know: what I look like to someone else’s judgment and quantification. They have no idea what it’s like to be me, more than I have any idea what it’s like to be them. And yet people fall in love and share things. In no way can they truly understand what is going on inside another person, but they do find a way.”
Let’s make room in this time of relentless constriction for a creative voice that rings loud and clear. Even if he only has one foot in this world.
“Wild Mountain Thyme” is in release via Bleecker Street on all platforms including theaters.