Sunday, May 19, 2024


THE STORY – The lines between reality and imagination begin to blur when writer Flannery O’Connor is diagnosed with lupus.

THE CAST – Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn & Laura Linney

THE TEAM – Ethan Hawke (Director/Writer) & Shelby Gaines (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes

“Wildcat,” Ethan Hawke’s fantasia on the life and work of Flannery O’Connor, opens with a fake Old Hollywood-style trailer for a lurid film version of the author’s first novel, “Wise Blood.” After that, the onscreen text informs the audience that the film is “based on short stories by Flannery O’Connor.” Despite that text, O’Connor’s stories only make up around half the film’s running time. The film’s other half is devoted to telling the story of the start of O’Connor’s writing career between 1950 and 1952 when she received a diagnosis of lupus and finished the novel that would become her best-known work. The film’s bifurcated structure, where versions of O’Connor’s short stories intrude upon the narrative of her life, offers a unique take on well-worn biopic tropes but ends up shortchanging both O’Connor’s biography and her literary output.

We first meet Mary Flannery O’Connor (Maya Hawke) in New York City, where she’s meeting with her publisher (Alessandro Nivola). He doesn’t understand why, in his words, “It feels like you’re trying to pick a fight with your reader,” and wants an outline of where the story is heading. O’Connor refuses, saying she doesn’t know what she will write until she’s written it. She then boards a train home to Georgia, and it’s clear that what she’s writing about is affecting her mental state. Or perhaps it’s closer to the opposite – the thoughts in her head are having an impact on what she’s writing, and not necessarily for the good of her health. Not long after arriving back at her family’s farm in rural Milledgeville, the local doctor diagnoses her with lupus, the same disease that killed her father when she was young. As she looks at the world around her through somewhat new eyes, we see flashes of the short stories that come from her observations – grotesqueries of Southern gentility and Catholic mores that genuinely grapple with what those things mean in the real world.

Thematically, everything connects. The visualizations of O’Connor’s stories never come directly from her life but rather from the “big ideas” that the people and situations around her provoke inside her head. It’s an intuitive approach, but one that works because of the loose connections one could make between the stories and the people and situations in O’Connor’s life. For example, not every character Hawke plays is meant to be a proxy for Flannery herself. Nor are all the characters played by Laura Linney meant to represent Flannery’s mother (the character she plays in the main storyline), but rather different Southern women of a certain age. This begs the question of why Hawke and Linney play characters in the stories at all. No other actors in the film cross over, and there doesn’t seem to be a connection between the characters, but rather between the ideas certain characters express or represent. Ethan Hawke and his co-writer Shelby Gaines often want to have it both ways, wanting to be smart in a way similar to O’Connor but also wanting to make sure the audience is always in on it.

This stylistic conceit doesn’t always make sense (even though the performances are enjoyable). Still, it does help further the film’s exploration of O’Connor’s deep connection to Catholicism and how her pursuit of becoming a great writer conflicted with that, thus prompting deep existential crises that pushed her to the brink. Hawke has a deep connection to creative spirits, and his experience playing Father Toller in “First Reformed” has obviously left a mark, as well. Without feeling overly religious, “Wildcat” is a deeply religious film, gracefully exploring O’Connor’s crisis of faith through both her writing (via the visualizations of her stories) and her inability to write her novel.

As O’Connor, Maya Hawke delves deep, capturing her mental anguish with as much acuity as her physical pain. She makes O’Connor’s discomfort feel both existential and physical, a better conduit for the film’s themes than the flashes of her stories, which interrupt the main narrative whenever it gets to its most interesting points. Despite Hawke and Linney’s strong work leading the enviable ensemble (Alessandro Nivola, Philip Ettinger, and Liam Neeson all bring grounded warmth to their vastly different male authority figures, while Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, and Steve Zahn all heighten their characters just enough for O’Connor’s written world), it’s hard not to feel as though the film gets in its own way trying to be both a biography of O’Connor and a cinematic version of her written work.

The cast is so good that O’Connor’s stories mostly end up just adding to the running time. They’re technically well done and bring value to the film in terms of further fleshing out O’Connor’s worldview, but that doesn’t make up for how they bring the film to a screeching halt every few minutes. Had the writing team figured out a way to express O’Connor’s worldview as she did in her writing via other means or had adapted several of her short stories into one picaresque, “Wildcat” could have been something truly special. As it is, it splits the difference between that specialness and ordinary biopic drudgery, creating something worth a watch but not much more.


THE GOOD - Offers a unique look at the work and life of Flannery O'Connor, dealing with her struggles as an artist and Catholic in an engaging way.

THE BAD - The mixture of O'Connor's life and stories isn't always smooth, making them both feel shortchanged.



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Dan Bayer
Dan Bayer
Performer since birth, tap dancer since the age of 10. Life-long book, film and theatre lover.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Offers a unique look at the work and life of Flannery O'Connor, dealing with her struggles as an artist and Catholic in an engaging way.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The mixture of O'Connor's life and stories isn't always smooth, making them both feel shortchanged.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"WILDCAT"