Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Horizon Line

Wildcat — Ethan Hawke

April 29, 2024

It’s a family affair in Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat, with the actor-turned-writer-director building the film around his daughter Maya Hawke’s performance as Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor (Ethan’s wife, Ryan, also serves as a producer on the film). Part biopic, part adaptation of half a dozen of O’Connor’s short stories, the film attempts to reconcile a life spent in self-isolation, cut short by a debilitating illness, with a roiling interiority that was consumed with transgression, faith, violence, and race that still provokes to this day (O’Connor’s work makes a fleeting, knowingly inflammatory appearance in last year’s American Fiction). It’s a daunting task, and familiarity with O’Connor’s work is practically a prerequisite both in maintaining interest in the subject matter and discerning a greater purpose behind the effort, leaving the unversed at something of a loss. Hawke (the filmmaker) is undoubtedly stirred by the writer’s prose and her gift for capturing charlatans, zealots, and hypocrites, and Hawke (the actress) offers an appreciably prickly take on O’Connor’s inquisitiveness and quiet desperation, but the film remains, in nearly every respect, a fans-only proposition.

We’re introduced to O’Connor in her mid-20s, attempting to finish what would become her first and most widely celebrated novel, Wise Blood, while also living in 1950 New York. (In a reminder that even classier entries of this genre aren’t immune from the lazy trappings of biopics, O’Connor endures the eye-roll-inspiring criticism of an editor played by Alessandro Nivola, who complains that the author’s approach to fiction feels like an assault on her readers.) Harboring an unrequited love for her former professor, the poet Robert Lowell (Philip Ettinger), O’Connor is called back to her native Milledgeville, Georgia, at the urging of her domineering mother, Regina (Laura Linney, found under a period-appropriate bouffant and sporting an “I do declare”-style Southern accent). Socially awkward, ashen, and physically graceless, it’s only upon arriving at her family’s farmhouse that Flannery is told the dark secret that’s been kept from her for years: that she’s been suffering from Lupus, the same illness that claimed the life of her father years earlier. Undergoing a heavy regimen of cortisone injections and with her gait deteriorating by the day, O’Connor writes to her beloved yet engaged-to-another Lowell, desperate to connect with her old life, while gradually accepting that she may never escape Milledgeville. And in her despondence and hopelessness, she walls herself off in her bedroom and writes.

Between scenes of O’Connor pecking away at her typewriter and suffering both her infirmities and the mid-century parenting of her concerned yet oblivious mother, we flash back to the author’s earliest days in New York City, where she relocated to after winning a prestigious literary prize. Temperamentally ill-suited for the world of breezy conversation and cocktail parties — when a peer “politely” suggests that O’Connor might consider an alternative for the N-word, which regularly appears in her work, the author’s sputtering obstinance in defending the integrity of the choice does little to dispel perceptions of a deeply ingrained racism that cling to her to this day — these scenes primarily serve to establish Flannery as a wallflower consumed with everyday sin who bluntly speaks her mind. We also observe regular dramatic interpretations of such notable works as “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” “Parker’s Back,” and “Good Country People” (the most adventurous of these interludes is a mock trailer that plays before the film proper that compresses “The Comforts of Home” into a coming attraction for a black-and-white, Elia Kazan-style melodrama). In every instance, Hawke the younger serves as the short story’s protagonist — even performing in drag for “Everything That Rises Must Converge” — alongside Linney and assorted other supporting performances from the likes of Steve Zahn, Cooper Hoffman, and Vincent D’Onofrio, each attempting to convey some part of O’Connor’s strongly-held views on the fallibility of man, crime, and religion.

In this respect, Wildcat recalls Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which similarly dramatized the written works of its subject, the reactionary Japanese author Yukio Mishima, in between more conventional biographical scenes. But Hawke the elder hasn’t Schrader’s gift for theatricality, prioritizing breathy performances and fidelity to the source material over wild stylistic swings and stagecraft. Further, O’Connor’s life lacked the sort of memorable punctuation mark that Mishima’s did — an understatement if ever there was one — that might justify the entire endeavor. While these sequences provide a counterintuitive window into O’Connor’s governing philosophy and the spiritual turmoil that informed her writing, a more cynical read on the film is that absent these respites, there simply isn’t enough incident here to sustain what is otherwise a dispassionate epistolary between O’Connor and Lowell chronicling her restlessness and solitude in rural Georgia.

As a tribute to O’Connor, Wildcat is uncompromising to the point of being pyrrhic. Like the author’s short stories, the film elides sentimentality, pat conclusions, or a conventional dramatic shape. And, true to O’Connor’s devout Catholic beliefs, the film confronts the every day “evils” of the world while denying the viewer vicarious cheap thrills. However, as an entry point to O’Connor’s work, the film is dry, even verging on fibrous; it engages with its ideas with such self-seriousness and theme-first directness that it risks tipping over into parody. Most damning of all, there’s a dreary stodginess to the film, as though it recognizes whatever cinematic properties it might aspire to are of secondary concern to serving as an academic supplement or live-action study guide. It’s the sort of film where, late in the proceedings, Flannery expresses an interest in raising peacocks, and even a neophyte can recognize the grinding gears groaning to life as Wildcat introduces a Wikipedia-approved factoid, as well as a versatile metaphor (the film’s final shot is all but preordained). There’s nothing quite so transgressive as creating a work destined to play in lecture halls to distract bored college students.

DIRECTOR: Ethan Hawke;  CAST: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman;  DISTRIBUTOR: Oscilloscope Laboratories;  IN THEATERS: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 48 min.