WILDCAT – Review by Diane Carson

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Wildcat details Flannery O’Connor’s challenging life

Presenting a writer’s life in a captivating, engrossing way has eluded many directors. All the more credit, then, to Ethan Hawke who takes on prolific Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat, starring his daughter Maya. Not only does Ethan present Flannery’s physically and emotionally difficult life, he also integrates throughout the film dramatized vignettes from her semi-autobiographical short stories.

Born in 1925, Savannah, Georgia, in her early twenties, O’Connor received a diagnosis of systemic lupus, an autoimmune disorder that took her life in 1965 at thirty-nine. Wildcat presents Flannery reacting to negative reception at the Iowa Writer’s workshop, struggling with rejection by her Rinehart editor-in-chief, enjoying support from friend Robert “Cal” Lowell, and contending with an embattled relationship with her mother, Regina, on whose farm she lives due to her medical problems.

Working from letters and journals (with O’Connor’s racism a recent topic in the media), Hawke brings this devout but irreverent Catholic to vivid life. A tormented skeptic, Flannery depicted unsettling and often unpopular topics: primarily nihilism and religious skepticism intermixed with dark humor often connected with tragically flawed, exploitive, physically compromised individuals: a one-armed tramp, a young woman with a partial leg prosthesis, a heavily tattooed drifter, a smooth-talking, victimizing Bible salesman.

At a Q&A with Ethan Hawke at this past year’s Telluride Film Festival where I first saw the film, he made clear his trepidation undertaking such a daunting challenge. But, with Maya’s encouragement, he and Shelby Gaines developed the screenplay collapsing real events O’Connor transformed in her stories. The result is a dynamic interplay between the real and the imagined. In fact, Hawke says, “Wildcat is a movie about imagination and faith” defined by Flannery’s “inner life, by her search and her dialogue with the divine.”

Maya Hawke is Flannery and Laura Linney her mother Regina, but both play six roles (the actual and invented) inviting rich insights into both Flannery’s creativity and her troubled existence. Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Liam Neeson, Philip Ettinger, and Willa Fitzgerald shine in supporting roles. Wildcat’s widescreen compositions masterfully deliver an artist’s riveting, unsettled world.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.