‘Wildcat’ Review: Ethan Hawke’s Oddball Character Study Cleverly Illuminates Life Of Flannery O’Connor – Telluride Film Festival

Ethan Hawke has directed, written and/or acted in quite a few notably esoteric projects throughout his multi-faceted career, and he’s now come up with another in Wildcat. This one makes use of four Flannery O’Connor stories that tie in to aspects of the writer’s difficult life and truly do illuminate aspects of it in clever and plausible ways. The general public would have no clue as to what’s going on in this often perceptively made film that connects with her work, but the episodes are frequently weird, abruptly amusing and almost always cleverly pertinent in some way. 

There’s no question but that Wildcat is a small, narrowly focused work that will be of interest mainly to college literature students, southern academics and particular female writers. But kudos to Hawke for putting even a small spotlight on this singular American writer who, while working through dreadful medical ailments, not only wrote some prose like no other but then became recognized as one of the significant authors of the past mid-century. O’Connor, played here by Maya Hawke, saw things that others didn’t and wrote about people, places and things that were mostly ignored. Her work was often very dark and you have to wonder where it all came from, so this small film will serve at least as modest springboard for more readers to discover this one-of-a-kind talent.   

The script by Shelby Gaines and Hawke knowledgeably and sometimes daringly makes use of the writer’s work to very cleverly illuminate the life. Early scenes are set in 1950 New York City involving meetings with publishing bigwigs; the sessions look to have been strained. What we hear and see from her is mostly intense unhappiness, and some shrewdly revealed examples of her writing indicate how severe and strikingly dark much of her work would become.

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“I don’t want to be an angel,” O’Connor remarked at one point and there was little doubt about the ultimate fates of most of her characters, a number of whom appear in the stories Hawke selected to be filmed in part.

Hawke, cinematographer Steve Cosens and editor Barry Poltermann impressively worked out visual ways to make the changes in timeframes and settings blend almost imperceptibly among the stories; the filmmakers have worked skillfully mixing visual aspects and the transitions between fiction and real-life incidents that might have sparked her imagination or sat there for years on a back shelf waiting for O’Connor to conceive of them herself.

Problems the author had in simply living life day-to-day are amply on display; one ends up with bountiful evidence for how she managed to get along, and a late-blooming romance between her and a young fellow is shown graphically enough for one to imagine how difficult it was for her to lead a life that involved dealing with the real world and not just a bunch of relations who would have kept her within earshot at nearly all times. 

Also significant is the time O’Connor spends with a handsome traveling salesman who makes a major play for her. The experience is, for her, quite frightful and honestly portrayed. We don’t learn what role sexuality actually might have played in the woman’s life, but we do have an idea of how she dealt with what was given her: obstinacy, a quality that made it possible for her to outlast the wills of others.

O’Connor’s personality and the filmmakers’ attentiveness to detail make this oddball character study worthwhile for literati looking for new angles from which to make observations about perennial subjects for biographical analyses, as well as for students to study significant aspects of a writer whose personality and talents are likely to remain subjects of interest for a long time to come.

Title: Wildcat
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Director: Ethan Hawke
Screenwriters: Shelby Gaines, Ethan Hawke
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Steve Zahn, Cooper Hoffman, Willa Fitzgerald, Alessandro Nivola, Vincent D’Onofrio
Sales: UTA Independent Film Group
Running time: 1 hr 43 min

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