The spirit of Flannery O’Connor, the iconic Southern literary figure known for her piercing insights into the human condition, comes to life in the film “Wildcat.” Directed by Ethan Hawke, with his daughter Maya Hawke and Laura Linney in prominent roles, the movie offers an audacious and occasionally challenging tribute to the celebrated author.
Flannery O’Connor possessed a unique ability to see people beyond their facades, cutting through superficial prejudices and insincere piety to reveal their less civilized, hidden selves. Her writings were not only marked by this X-ray vision but also by her exceptional ear for capturing the authentic language of her characters, infusing her stories with regional expressions that felt as genuine as they were vivid.
In “Wildcat,” the Hawkes take an unconventional approach to pay homage to O’Connor, avoiding the pitfall of mere imitation that has ensnared many who sought to emulate her. Instead, they construct a complex collage, weaving elements from O’Connor’s life and work into a tapestry that is both unconventional and appreciative.
The film introduces us to Mary Flannery O’Connor, portrayed by Maya Hawke, but we witness her doing everything but writing. From attending mass to collecting peacocks, she’s on a relentless quest for stories. The rare moments when we see her typing on her typewriter are minimal, as the film alternates between her tumultuous personal life and the fictional worlds she masterfully crafted.
Intriguingly, the characters in her stories begin to blur with those in her life, suggesting a more autobiographical connection than readers typically assume. “Wildcat” delves into O’Connor’s early years, marked by self-doubt and relentless criticism from her family and editor, expertly portrayed by Alessandro Nivola.
Despite the challenges she faced, Maya Hawke’s portrayal of Flannery captures the essence of a prophet rather than a victim. O’Connor’s profound Catholic faith is an ever-present force in her life, one that takes the place of any romantic partner.
The film also acknowledges her intimate connection with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Lowell, portrayed by Philip Ettinger as “Cal.” Life consistently disappointed O’Connor, leading her to return home after honing her craft in various locations. Her frustrations found an outlet in her characters, as she crafted stories of betrayal and disillusionment.
While “Wildcat” is emotionally taxing and, at times, abrasive, it offers a glimpse into the legacy of Flannery O’Connor and the adversity she faced. It’s a tribute that goes beyond the surface, delving into the complex layers of her life and works, showcasing her indomitable spirit and her unapologetic commitment to her craft.
In an era where imitating great writers is common, “Wildcat” stands as an inventive and daring ode to a literary legend who saw the world with a unique perspective, and it encourages audiences to appreciate her profound influence on literature and storytelling.