Wild Mountain Thyme: The Bird and the Bee

Bleecker Street

It’s hard to say what’s more fucked up, John Patrick Shanley’s neo-film maudit Wild Mountain Thyme or my unconditional love for it. The internet thrives on ‘unpopular opinion’ prompts—what opinion, Twitter screams at me endlessly, would get you this response? An image of a smirking cartoon swashbuckler surrounded by swords tends to be proffered by way of visual aid, and I generally take that image as a cue to scroll right by (such a prompt being among the lowest forms of engagement farming), but I’ll offer one up now, prepared to become the cocky swashbuckler to the internet’s array of steel. My unpopular opinion is that Wild Mountain Thyme—an Irish-set and assertively whimsical comic romance currently sitting at a star rating of 2/5 on Letterboxd, described by video essayist Patrick Willems as feeling “like someone mistranslated [the] script from another language,” and by podcaster Elliott Kalan as “maybe the least relevant film in the history of filmmaking”—is a transcendent work of art. Not from any objective standpoint, but rather from that of one particular head and heart: my own.

To love something unconditionally—be it a child or a well-meaning but detested film—doesn’t require the belief that your beloved is the apex of its form. Rather, it means looking squarely at the object of your affection, observing the qualities that might make someone else’s love conditional, and saying, Yeah, I get it. I’m different, though. It’s mine. I cannot (and would not) deny the fact that Wild Mountain Thyme currently holds a 26% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, nor the fact that the disapproving 74% labeled the film “charmless” and “obnoxious,” nor the fact that even the handful of reviews marked “fresh” contain such qualifiers as “too fanciful for its own good” and “total nonsense.” Yeah, I get it. I’m different, though. It’s mine.

Wild Mountain Thyme is not a midnight movie in the making. This is no disasterpiece on the order of Cats or Serenity, nor does it hold the potential to join the ranks of such niche titles as Labor Day—forgotten misfires that signify dreck among the online intelligentsia. Wild Mountain Thyme is a film of modest aims (generally missed, but that’s okay) and good nature (generally misplaced, but that’s okay) that happens to contain one howlingly misguided choice, one so seismic that it ripples outwards to overtake the entire film in most viewers’ minds. It’s neither gaudy nor po-faced enough to meet even the loosest definition of camp, a quality so essential to disasterpiece canonization; Wild Mountain Thyme will never be so-bad-it’s-good. And as it would seem that a statistically insignificant number of viewers consider it outright good, I must unconditionally love a film that is, by any potentially verifiable measure, bad.

I am not here to refute this statement. I probably couldn’t, and I’m not particularly interested in trying. My love for Wild Mountain Thyme is predicated on one scene that abuts the ultimate buzzworthy reveal like an uneasy neighbor, a moment so innately impactful, at least from the wavelength I’m riding, that its mere existence serves as an emotionality button I scarcely have to graze before my throat tightens. As the reveal is for so many viewers, that catharsis is powerful enough to cast a radiating glow, invalidating any potential conditional factors. Naturally, I’ll describe this scene for you, but it won’t be for a little while. I’m not foolhardy enough to dive right into an open-hearted defense of Wild Mountain Thyme. This is a risky argument on any number of levels, and it needs to be thoroughly couched. 

For example, you could easily bring up the film’s flat and muddy look, which has little care for graceful composition and even less for evocative use of light and shadow. I would agree with that criticism. You might follow that with the assertion that the film is badly written. I would likely counter with the suggestion that the screenplay is mannered in a way that reflects the writer’s background in theater. You could easily respond with the argument that mannered writing exists on a spectrum of quality, and that simply pointing out intent can’t invalidate criticisms of execution. Of course, you would be correct. The problem with that argument is, Wild Mountain Thyme’s location on such a spectrum is entirely beside the point to me. And, by now, you likely wouldn’t be able to stop yourself from bringing up the ultimate reveal, which you would likely call “the bee thing.” So, fine, let’s get to the bee thing.

But—and forgive me if you only came here for the bee thing—that does mean starting off with the bird thing: Rosemary (Emily Blunt) and Anthony (Jamie Dornan) operate neighboring farms in central Ireland, where they perpetually shadowbox their crystal-clear destiny as soulmates. We meet them first as children; Anthony immerses his face in a flower, earning mockery from a peer, an affront from which Rosemary defends him, earning her a shove from Anthony for her trouble. Returning home distraught, Rosemary tells her father that she must be cursed to live a purposeless life, which he counters with the assertion that she is Tchaikovsky’s white swan, majestic and all powerful. “The world is yours.”

This kinship with a graceful waterfowl serves as a symbol for Rosemary’s vulnerable yet aloof public face, and that symbolic alignment carries her through the deaths of both of her parents in rapid succession, and then Anthony’s staunch rejection of her love after the death of his own father (Christopher Walken). Soon enough, it drives her as far as New York, where she demands that Anthony’s American cousin, Adam (Jon Hamm), escort her to the ballet so she can witness Swan Lake for herself. Rosemary returns to Ireland ready to confront Anthony over what’s keeping him from embracing their clearly predestined union; and, as anyone who’s heard of Wild Mountain Thyme likely knows, the reason is that Anthony believes he is a honeybee.

What this could mean is anyone’s guess, but he does seem to mean it in a quite literal way; when Rosemary attempts to meet him halfway by reminding him that she, too, believes herself to be an animal, he insists that her relationship with swans is more superficial than his conviction concerning his own identity and species. Wild Mountain Thyme is based on a play, so perhaps one might hope to gain greater insight on the meaning of the bee thing there; having read Shanley’s Outside Mullingar on my own post-viewing fact-finding mission, I can attest that one would be sorely disappointed. What Shanley does with that play is offer a version of Rosemary and Anthony’s story that’s stripped to its barest elements, of which the bee thing is undeniably one. As befits the stage, Outside Mullingar is told in a series of lengthy two-handers, with much of the film’s more expansive material and larger cast either unseen (even agreeable American Adam is only mentioned) or unaccounted for—and this allows the remaining material to loom large and inform the film’s centers of gravity. If the reveal is so innately essential to the story, then couldn’t we argue that it makes sense on a deeper, ecstatic level? 

No, not really—my unconditional love for this movie will certainly allow that John Patrick Shanley failed to stick the landing in conveying this idea either cinematically or theatrically, seemingly too caught up in his own impish impulses to consider the impact of his presentation on his audience. With all that said, though, distilling the story to the point that the bee thing forms a beating (buzzing) heart would seem to indicate that this should be read as a story about people who are mad—in a classical fairy tale sense as much as, or more so, than a clinical one. 

In this way, Wild Mountain Thyme is easily aligned with a distinct lineage of Shanley projects. From Moonstruck in the ‘80s to Joe Versus the Volcano in the ‘90s to Wild Mountain Thyme today, Shanley has shown a fondness for stories concerning all the ways that existing as a human being on planet Earth, tangled up somewhere in the roots of history, is a stressful enough condition to drive any sufficiently sensitive person at least halfway mad. Wild Mountain Thyme is his most direct grapple with these themes yet—does this make it a better film than Moonstruck? As I am not mad (in the fairy tale sense), I would not make such a ridiculous claim. Is it better than the widely-derided cult object Joe Versus the Volcano? I would answer that question with a question: does it matter? All that matters to me is how good it feels to watch Wild Mountain Thyme and have a cry.

I do want to get around to actually defending it, but there is something else worth mentioning first: while the name Shanley is Irish, John Patrick Shanley is fundamentally American. Born and raised in the Bronx, the son of an Irish meatpacker, he gathered an observational trove of New York ephemera that came to bear on projects like Moonstruck and Doubt. But when Shanley and his father visited the old country, the dramatist met his cousin, Anthony, becoming captivated by this man and his rural environs. The real-life Anthony, as Shanley wrote for the script’s softcover edition, “was an odd mixture of calm and storm,” and his community was much the same: “though they lived in the middle of nowhere…they all seemed to be somehow overstimulated.”

This tourist’s perspective (and casting choices like the rather famously American Christopher Walken as an Irish patriarch, which only adds insult to injury) so galled Irish journalist Donald Clarke that he published five articles in the Irish Times lambasting the film between November 2020 and April 2021. “What in the name of holy bejaysus and all the suffering saints is this benighted cowpat?” he asked ironically when the trailer premiered, while in his one-star review the following year, he decried “the film’s fascinatingly deranged attitude to contemporary Ireland…You know we only speak this way for the tourists, Mr Shanley?”

If Wild Mountain Thyme is a tourist’s film, that aligns it, as well, with a favorite tradition of mine: non-American directors setting films in America and observing the idiosyncrasies of our sprawling continent. Of course, the versions of this exercise that I most appreciate come from masters of the form (Wim Wenders with Paris, Texas, Andrea Arnold with American Honey), a category in which it’s hard to argue for John Patrick Shanley’s inclusion. Thus, I’m advocating for a film that Irish audiences consider an assemblage of stereotype, anachronism, and condescension. The equivalent film with a reversed geographic dynamic—a misguided portrait of the United States painted by a confident Irish director who’d visited a cousin in, say, Wisconsin—would likely land with a thud for any viewer more intimately familiar with the setting. And yet.

And yet the night that Wild Mountain Thyme first collided with my life, my heart and mind must have been positioned at just the right angle. I had been aware of the film’s widespread mockery by the time I decided to see what all the fuss was about, and yet still I mustered an emotionally unmediated encounter with the story and its peculiar brand of outrageously unironic whimsy. Outrageous whimsy has been present and accounted for in entertainment for adults since time immemorial, but it tends to be accepted most easily when cut with a healthy dose of irony, a winking awareness that the viewer and director are in on some joke concerning the discrepancy between the filmic and literal worlds. One could easily imagine a Wes Anderson melancholy rom-com involving madness, star-crossed lovers, and the mercurial natural elements; in fact, one could just imagine Moonrise Kingdom. Yet the extreme dryness and extreme cartoonishness with which Anderson renders his story puts it in an entirely different category from Wild Mountain Thyme, a film that’s never joking but is consistently trying to have a little fun, causing a level of tonal cognitive dissonance that most viewers seemingly found unbearable.

If there is a litmus test for one’s response to Wild Mountain Thyme, it might come at the close of the prologue (presuming one has gone even those few minutes without rendering judgment on its debatable merits), which sees young Rosemary transform into adult Rosemary. She bursts from her home, performing a flurry of mediocre pseudo-ballet steps to strains of Tchaikovsky, before riding her stallion up past a gnarled, dead tree onto a bluff to watch the lightning roll in. For my money, if any moment in Wild Mountain Thyme qualifies for a ‘heightened ecstasy’ dispensation, it would have to be this one; if you feel differently, I admire your elevated aesthetic eye. I’ll be over here being overwhelmed by basically any surge of hyperbolic and pure-hearted emotionality, a virtue that’s covered any number of narrative and aesthetic sins over the years.

Now, after a fairly ridiculous number of words devoted to cagy defense of a movie many would argue is indefensible, I’ll finally discuss the ending, a moment of cinema that impacts me so deeply that I allow it to sprawl outwards like an invasive plant and choke out any conditionals, be they in good or bad faith. This coda—intercut with the moments immediately after Anthony and Rosemary’s predestined admission of love—is set in the local pub, in which we’ve earlier seen Rosemary perform the titular traditional during a charity talent show, causing Anthony’s father to fall into a fit of stoic weeping. We return to the pub now, and Anthony takes the stage, demanding his wife join him for a song; Rosemary steps up to the microphone for what would seem like a conventional closing flash-forward. But then the camera turns to find the full ensemble—not just those still living, like Adam and the comely lass he’s just met on his intercontinental flight, but those departed, like Anthony and Rosemary’s parents, and even those who would break the laws of thermodynamics by existing in the same space, like Anthony and Rosemary’s younger selves. 

On some level, the moment is a simple curtain call, another reflection of Shanley’s theatrical roots. Yet for as common as it is onstage, the convention is not a particularly cinematic one save for the occasional end-credits montage. What Shanley does with his film version is create a space outside time in which, through sheer force of love and whatever strange magicks govern this universe in which characters pray to Mother Nature rather than God, every soul can be reunited in bliss, their voices coming together in joyful song.

It’s the image of Anthony’s parents that really does me in. Anthony’s mother is seen only briefly in Wild Mountain Thyme, standing in the window during the prologue as a woman in early middle age singing the titular song that comes to accrue so much weight. This, we learn later, may well have been the moment that cured Anthony’s father of a devastating anhedonia, allowing him to embrace life and belatedly fall in love with his wife. It’s Anthony’s elderly father and younger mother who are reunited in this coda, and this reminder of the song’s significance to the (miscast) heart of the story hits me like a train. Something primal is touched by this moment, and perhaps one day I’ll understand its mechanism more fully and unlock whatever associations it triggers in me. Perhaps I won’t, and the film will remain a go-to resource when I need an emotional purge. Either way.

I have mulled writing this essay for a year now, but I’ve held off largely because I wasn’t interested in inviting mockery or indifference into my life, the only two outcomes I could envision for my call into the void concerning my own purposeless love. I write it now not in hopes of spurring any cult revival; this anti-camp non-disasterpiece was never built for that treatment. Rather, I’m here to make my case against that dirty little term guilty pleasure, the inventor of which (to paraphrase Reynolds Woodcock) should be spanked in public, hanged, drawn, and quartered. “Why,” to quote another swiftly-memed tweet, “must a movie be ‘good’? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a beautiful face, huge?”

In 2009, John Patrick Shanley delivered the commencement address at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. He discussed a great number of things, including (but not limited to) prison abolition, but stashed in the middle of his loose assortment of wisdom, he said this: 

You want to have an exciting life, a surprising life, this is what I suggest: when you choose to speak, tell the truth…Do it with kindness, do it with care, but say who you are and let it stand. If you do this, you will be a force in the world…When you lie, you’re boring, and nothing changes. That’s been my experience. You are going to die. We’re here for like ten minutes. Make it count.

Not every writer would tell a crowd of graduating seniors, “You are going to die.” The urge is an eccentric one that likely won’t be to everyone’s taste. Similarly, I can’t imagine everyone, or anyone at all, being overly impressed with my own urge to spend a portion of my ten minutes telling the truth about my love for this misbegotten movie. And yet, never has there been a movie it felt more socially risky—at least for non-problematic reasons—to admit love for. When I voiced my appreciation for the instantly reviled cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, acknowledging that the majority of readers would likely label me a “garbage boy with a brain made of canned peaches,” there were two key differences: on the one hand, Cats was based on a ubiquitous populist smash, while Wild Mountain Thyme is based on a play remembered (if at all) for a viral clip of Debra Messing attempting to pronounce the word “heifer” with an Irish brogue. On the other, I will admit the garish wrongness of Cats, a film that I described on release as “exploring the razor line between prestige and trash culture”; I will do no such thing for Wild Mountain Thyme.

No matter how not-brave, this does strike me as an exciting thing to say with a few of my ten minutes. We can’t choose the art that impacts us; if we could, I’d love any number of agreed-upon Great Works that might boost my social capital and/or cinephilic brainpower. Instead, I love a digitally flat, tonally mishmashed, fever-dream illogical thing, and saying so at such length must sound to many people like Anthony’s confession that he believes he’s a bee: an absurdly eccentric, and even impenetrably irrational, thing to do. 

So here’s something penetrably rational: everything is FUBAR. To paraphrase Bob Dylan’s seminal (or at least estimable) 1989 single “Everything Is Broken,” ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking, everything is fucked up beyond all repair. And as the internet’s parlance has become progressively streaked with misanthropy and nihilism, my most toxic trait has arisen to, in some cases, take the place of guilty pleasure. I dare say it’s an improvement. This new term refers to an opinion sincerely held by the speaker even as they acknowledge it’s so unpopular as to be potentially radioactive. And yet there is no guilt; the term is almost always offered unprompted. Your most toxic trait, at least according to the rules of Online, is one so well and truly yours that you can’t help shouting it from the rooftops. 

Now you’ve heard my most toxic trait. And you’ve come this far, so I’m going to try and spread the toxin to you; get out of the way if you don’t want to get stung. There is something called clinical lycanthropy. This neurological diagnosis is vanishingly uncommon, but it has been observed in patients experiencing psychotic depression. Those with clinical lycanthropy describe a deeply-held conviction that they were once, will one day be, or currently are an animal, and the list of case studies includes ample traditional furred and pawed creatures. But it also includes at least one patient who seems to have believed that they were a honeybee.

I say this not to defend John Patrick Shanley; I simply don’t think, no matter how dodgy the execution, that the bee thing is worth burying him over. Why must a movie be “good”? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see risky ideas, huge?