Film Review: “Wildcat” — Flannery O’Connor’s Quest for Grace

By Glenn Rifkin

Wildcat is a biopic that sticks with you for days, bedeviled by questions and revelations.

Wildcat, directed by Ethan Hawke. Screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

A scene featuring Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor in the biopic Wildcat.

At one point in Ethan Hawke’s new film Wildcat, a thought-provoking biopic about writer Flannery O’Connor, the author is bedridden with lupus in her Milledgeville, Georgia, home and asks for a priest to come to her bedside. O’Connor, played by Hawke’s daughter, Maya Hawke, is suffering from dual torments: the agonizing physical pain from the disease that would kill her at age 39 and the emotional agony of squaring her devout Catholicism with her dark and troublingly strange writings.

The priest, played by a brilliant Liam Neeson in a small but powerful role, does his ministerial duties, supplying mundane aphorisms until he realizes the depth of O’Connor’s anguish as she begs for some sort of absolution, convincing evidence that her beloved God has not abandoned her. “Is your conscience clear?” Neesom asks, leaning toward her. When O’Connor nods, he adds, “Then the rest is God’s business.”

It is a signature moment in this ambitious effort by Hawke, who has grappled with questions of faith in several of his recent acting roles, such as The Great Lord Bird and First Reformed.

O’Connor is a knotty subject for a film. Baby boomers probably encountered this remarkable Southern writer in high school or college, but recent generations seem to have lost touch with her work. Her Southern gothic novels, such as Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, were published in 1952 and 1960, respectively. Her well-received short story collections were released after her death in 1964. O’Connor’s narratives offer deeply detailed portraits of postwar Southern landscapes filled with grotesque and darkly flawed characters whose writhing — spiritual and otherwise — was brilliantly off-kilter, calculated to be disquieting to read. According to publishing lore, O’Connor’s devoted mother, Regina, once asked her publisher to try to “get Flannery to write about nice people.” Given O’Connor’s dark imagination, that would be an impossibility. That said, in terms of today’s political atmosphere, the writer’s feelings about race — she was in favor of segregation — were complex and troubling.

Hawke, who spoke about Wildcat at a screening in Manhattan, said he took on this ambitious project at the behest of Maya, who’d become obsessed with O’Connor’s writing after a high school English teacher turned her on to the author. Ethan Hawke had read O’Connor as a teenager because his mother adored her work. The opportunity to direct his daughter in the role was the catalyst to make the film, but over time the center of the narrative’s conflict became an exploration of the bedeviling contradictions between faith and art.

At the heart of Wildcat is O’Connor’s struggle to find peace between her religious feelings and her deeply cynical view of God’s imperfect human creatures. Looking at ways in which the author arrived at a balance in her art, Hawke incorporates several of O’Connor’s short stories into the narrative. At times, the juxtaposition between biography and imagination can be confusing. Maya plays the lead role in each of the tales and Laura Linney, who is terrific as O’Connor’s bluntly cheerful but worried mother Regina, takes on similar roles of conventional mores in each of the stories. As it jumps from reality to fiction, as well as crossing various timelines in O’Connor’s life, the film’s arc can be tricky to follow.

Maya Hawke is an emerging young talent — she has drawn raves for her role in the Netflix series Stranger Things. Here she offers an efficient if not transcendent portrayal of O’Connor, stronger on conveying the character’s amusing cynicism. Given an at times off-putting protagonist, director Hawke is faced with a challenge. He must maintain a fine line between discomfort and reassurance so that the film leads to a convincing vision of enlightenment. This creative struggle makes Wildcat a film that will stick with you for days, with questions and revelations abounding.

Ultimately, the biopic’s most valuable service may be to trigger an interest in O’Connor’s writings, sending oldsters back to their shelves to page through their favorite stories while enticing younger readers to experience this distinctive writer’s visionary gifts.

Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including the New York Times for nearly 35 years. He has written about music, film, theater, food and books for the Arts Fuse. His book Future Forward: Leadership Lessons from Patrick McGovern, the Visionary Who Circled the Globe and Built a Technology Media Empire was published by McGraw-Hill.

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