“Wildcat” – Claws out [MOVIE REVIEW]

Maya Hawke. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

“Wildcat,” Ethan Hawke’s audacious film about Flannery O’Connor, tries for the kind of gothic approach that this Southern writer might have liked. Most ambitious was his desire to reintroduce O’Connor, considered one of the leaders of Southern Gothic literature, a group that included William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Carson McCullers. This style often included elements of the grotesque, supernatural (either in thought or deed), and flawed characters, sometimes realistic, more often extreme. Flannery’s fiction was further enhanced by her strong religious beliefs and her complex relationship with racial prejudice. That she has been largely forgotten outside serious literature circles is something Hawke wanted to correct.

Hawke took a very novel approach in introducing an audience to her life, times and works, intermingling both biography and fiction, her fiction. Opening on her explaining to her New York publisher that she states that she was amenable to notes on her work but not a complete rewrite, and certainly not with an outline. She is a soft-spoken, not unattractive, polite woman with a steely demeanor. Intelligent, she will not suffer fools, even those who are paying her. 

“Wildcat” travels back and forth in time, showing a young O’Connor in class, presumably at the Yaddo artists’ community in Saratoga Springs, New York, where she came under the influence of Robert Lowell, the famous poet and writer. There was, as has often been reported, a strong attraction between them. O’Connor’s brilliance was identified early. Her unusual short stories were published in the day’s literary magazines when she was still a college student. She even won a scholarship to the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop where she received a Master’s degree.

She left her native Georgia at the age of twenty, never intending to return. She had early success with her short fiction and a full and interesting life in and around New York, surrounded by the artists of the day. Illness struck and, at 27, she returned home to rural Georgia for care, discovering that she suffered from Lupus, a disease that killed her father and would kill her by the age of 39. She would never be able to leave as her health continued to deteriorate. So ended whatever dreams she had of a life surrounded by the literati. But if her life contracted, her imagination soared, one that was filled with disabled women, crafty farmers and devious con men. She painted her environs in the most extreme settings and her characters as vulnerable to the machinations of others, relying so often on a strict religious faith that often betrayed them. 

Hawke takes his character of O’Connor and her ever present mother, Regina, and weaves their uneasy relationship into her short stories. He takes us back to New York to her complicated relationship with Lowell as he fawns over her but leaves her for another. All of this is woven together so seamlessly that time, reality, fiction and life become muddled to the point where it is often difficult to discern which story is being told. 

Still, it is a novel approach to try telling her saga through flashback and the representations of some of her fictional writing. The various stories are the highlight of the movie but it takes a great deal of concentration to discern the lines between the tales and her biography, especially because both the characters of Flannery and her mother Regina are often the leads in the representations of her gothic tales. And, as mentioned, the fictional representation of O’Connor is then transported to an earlier time in her real life before she returned to Georgia. If this seems overly confusing, it is. 

Maya Hawke. Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope.

What I admire most about this film are the filmed short stories, one where a one-armed hobo is taken in by a woman looking for a suitable husband for her daughter or the one about the Bible salesman who seduces the young woman with a wooden leg. They are horrifying and hilarious at the same time. Hawke and his co-writer Shelby Gaines were most successful in painting a picture of the very complex O’Connor through her work and less so in her post-grad, pre-return period. 

To a certain extent, O’Connor has been canceled as a writer. Her writing was prescient in its treatment of race. Her Black characters, much like those of Faulkner’s, are fully developed and shown to suffer from an unfair system. It was her personal opinions, expressed openly, that showed her to be less accepting. In a letter to a friend and fellow writer she wrote, “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle and a segregationist by taste. I don’t like Negros.” But her characters did not share her personal opinions and the very complicated O’Connor pointed those fingers at the hypocrisy and hate. In “American Fiction” it is an O’Connor short story that is being taught by the character Monk Ellison that causes his cancellation when a student walks out, offended that he would write the title, “The Artificial N****” on the white board. It was a word that appeared, often ironically, in so much of her work.

Describing her attachment to her Catholicism was harder to illustrate, although a scene between her and a local priest yields an interesting philosophical discussion on the meaning of faith. Her stories, one of which is acted out in the film, often show the inconsistencies in belief. O’Connor’s convictions and her tendency toward extreme characters would have been difficult or impossible to portray in any other way than Hawke chose. That I have ambivalence about the result is part of this difficulty. 

Cinematographer Steve Cosens has filmed everything with very dark, muddied colors, an excellent choice given the gothic nature of her stories and her life. In flashbacks he uses a muted or almost sepia tone. 

The major strength and a primary reason to see this film is the cast, excellent in both small and major roles. Alessandro Nivola is very effective as the condescending book editor who insists that O’Connor rewrite her book. Steve Zahn, Manley Pointer and Rafael Casal are fabulous as characters in three of the short stories used to illustrate O’Connor’s mindset and style. Each is horrifying in the telling and play on our guilt for laughing at their respective situations. Liam Neeson has a short, memorable cameo as the priest who debates theology with O’Connor. He positively grabs the scene in the most deceptively quiet way.

Maya Hawke, Ethan’s daughter and the driving force of the production, is a remarkable Flannery O’Connor, illustrating both her unpleasant and sympathetic qualities. It was, however, Laura Linney as O’Connor’s mother Regina who captured me the most and made me more forgiving of the story’s  chaos. Strong-willed, controlling and not always sympathetic, Linney’s soothing voice was often used as a counterpoint to her actions and feelings. 

Did I like it? Hard to say. Yet it did make me think, and on reflection I’m glad I watched. It will, no doubt, generate similar feelings in others but it’s more than just a noble effort. It’s an interesting, if not wholly successful, approach to telling someone’s story through the work they wrote.

Now playing at the AMC Century City 15.


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