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Non-Review Review: Wild Mountain Thyme

“Welcome,” narrates Christopher Walken in the opening moments of Wild Mountain Thyme. “Welcome to Ireland. My name’s Tony Reilly. And I’m dead.”

Even before it as released, Wild Mountain Thyme had positioned itself as a viable candidate for the “best bad movie of 2020”, a title that merits some distinction from actually and actively bad movies like Artemis Fowl or Songbird. There is something inherently performative about the idea of “best bad movies”, which requires them to be inherently entertaining in decidedly unconventional ways. Of course, Cats is perhaps the great example of this is recent memory, a terrible movie that has been swiftly reclaimed as a cult classic.

Fifty shade of green.

The premiere of the trailer for Wild Mountain Thyme immediately grabbed the internet’s attention, as did news about the plot of the play from which writer and director John Patrick Shanley was drawing. There was something about the combination of factors at play: the terrible accents, the twee portrayal of rural Ireland obviously written from an outsider’s perspective, Shanley’s interview comments about the Irish, and rumours about an insane third act twist. There was some anticipation that this could be an equivalent to something like Steven Knight’s Serenity.

Of course, the truth is that competing at this level, drawing that sort of interest and fascination, requires a certain spark. For all the problems with Serenity, it was not a film that lacked for ambition. Knight followed his impulses unwaiveringly and unquestioningly, and there’s something intoxicating in watching a film steer itself so confidently towards a premise so completely insane, with no real idea of how to execute the twists that it wants to employ. Sadly, Wild Mountain Thyme lacks that energy and vigour. Indeed, the worst thing about it is how dull it is.

Making a splash.

The problems with Wild Mountain Thyme are frustratingly mundane. They are baked into the premise, and they are merely a combination of factors that affect numerous movies each and every year. Of course, few movies are afflicted by so many of these problems, and fewer still with such severity, but the problem with Wild Mountain Thyme is never an ambition or an appetite that outstrips its ability. Quite the opposite, there is a strong sense that Wild Mountain Thyme aims squarely for mundane, and misses on several accounts.

Watching Wild Mountain Thyme, it is possible to see how the material might have worked on stage. After all, Shanley is a playwright by profession, and there is a sense that he feels more comfortable in a theatrical setting than writing for the screen. Shanley won his Oscar for Moonstruck, a film that has a decidedly theatrical sensibility to it. However, his first attempt to transition into screen directing led to the spectacular misfire Joe vs. the Volcano. He fare better with his next attempt, Doubt, but that was a decidedly conservative staging of his own play.

“Did somebody import a Large Hamm?”

Wild Mountain Thyme seems like the kind of project that might have played very well in a theatre setting, appealing to an audience of older Irish-Americans longing for some nostalgic flavour of what might be termed “the old country.” The film is packed with veteran actors bantering with one another in stereotypical Irish cadences. Characters offer nonsense that sounds like wisdom, polished with a folksy sheen. “Does glass have a taste?” one character asks. “Aye,” another replies. “It tastes like teeth.”

None of this is to suggest that Wild Mountain Thyme – or the play upon which it is based, Outside Mullingar – would be actively good on stage. However, it is recognisable as a work that plays well in that medium, where characters can monologue at one another, and where there’s a slight heightened reality to the dialogue. “Where do we go when we die?” asks young Anthony Reilly. “The sky?” His partner, Rosemary Muldoon is not convinced. “The ground,” she replies. It is an exchange the might work on a stage, but falls flat on screen.

Oh, Reilly?

Indeed, it is very easy to discern the intended target market for Wild Mountain Thyme. It is Americans with a very distinctive and old-fashioned view of Ireland, the type of character represented within the play by the wealthy American cousin Adam Kelly. Adam lives in New York, but he still thinks fondly of his ancestral home. He is “a banker dreaming of being a farmer”, and plans to buy the farm from the older Tony Reilly so that he might fulfill that dream. Adam has a very romantic an distorted view of Ireland, but it’s one that the film shares around him.

Wild Mountain Thyme is a storm of clichés about Ireland and the Irish. Adam seems at once entranced and confused by his distant relatives. The film thinks that the stereotype of the quaint and indirect Irishman is inherently absurd. “Why do you make everything so hard?” Adam sighs at one point, before clarifying, “The Irish.” It’s not that the cliché is offensive or anything like that, it is just lazy. Wild Mountain Thyme is squarely aimed at an audience eager to eat those tired and well-trodden archetypes, because they convey a sense of an imagined Ireland.

“Our American Cousin.”

The film gestures awkwardly at profundity in the manner of a middle-brow stage production, with even a debate about a land usage turning into existential meditation. “I don’t understand you people,” Adam laments. “You just seem to accept these crazy things. Like that gate situation and…” He trails off. Rosemary pushes him to finish, “And?” He finally does, “Loneliness!” The film returns time and time again to a series of awkward metaphors, such as Rosemary seeing herself as a swan like at the ballet.

None of these elements are particularly inspiring on their own, but they are all very familiar. There are plenty of films and plays that suffer from this sort of clumsy writing every year, and which still manage to find an audience and success. Indeed, it is easy to see how Outside Mullingar might have worked on stage, with a strong cast and a receptive audience willing to go along with it. The problems lie in the act of translating the play to screen.

Making an ass of himself.

Some plays survive that transition. Recently, films like The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom have brought beloved plays to screen with charismatic casts and direction that largely stays out of the way. (Shanley’s Doubt is arguably another example of this approach working relatively well, as is Denzel Washington’s Fences.) However, these adaptations rely on three key factors: a solid script that provides a sturdy foundation, a strong cast to bring the work to life, and a director who undertstands enough not to sabotage the effort.

Wild Mountain Thyme has none of these three elements. While it’s possible to imagine the narrative working as a stage play, it seems hard to imagine that stage play as a modern classic on part with The Boys in the Band and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, meaning that the film starts off from something of a serious disadvantage. More than that, the film suffers in the casting. At least Joe vs. the Volcano had Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks to try to keep it afloat. Jamie Dornan is completely lost in Wild Mountain Thyme, and it’s hard to blame him.

A very Mullingarded response.

However, the biggest problem with Wild Mountain Thyme is Shanley’s work as a director. He seems to completely misunderstand the register in which his play might work. Instead of adapting Wild Mountain Thyme as a nostalgia piece for Irish-Americans looking for a slice of home, Shanley makes a frankly surreal decision to shoot the film in the style of a nineties romantic comedy, despite the fact that the script is in no way designed to support such an approach – think of The Field, directed in the style of Leap Year.

However, it becomes very clear very quickly that Shanley understands romantic comedies about as well as he understands Ireland. The elements of Wild Mountain Thyme that evoke classic romantic comedies are all both superficial and completely overwhelming. Amelia Warner’s score does not accompany the film so much as smother it. Stephen Goldblatt’s cinematography makes Ireland look like a butter commercial. Shanley cannot even resist the urge to pepper the film with tonally bizarre dog reaction shots, which do not fit the material.

The Irishman who went up a hill…

However, the most frustrating aspect of all of these problems is how mundane they are. Wild Mountain Thyme never swings for the fences like those movies that manage to exert a strange pull in spite of their poor choices. Indeed, the movie’s much lauded final twist isn’t a desperate genre shift so much as a clumsy misfire of a theatrical metaphor, the ensuing confusion and chaos a result of laziness rather than ambition. This is deeply frustrating, because the result is a movie that is surprisingly boring and numbing.

Wild Mountain Thyme is just a bad movie, in the more boring sense of that phrase.

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