Review – Wildcat

GUG_WC-6

Overview

Synopsis A young writer returns to her home in rural Georgia after discovering a terminal illness, as she grapples with her faith and desire to become a great writer.

Length 1 hour, 43 minutes

Release Date May 3, 2024

 

Rating N/A

Distribution Oscilloscope Laboratories

Directing Ethan Hawke

Writing Ethan Hawke, Shelby Gaines

Composition Latham Gaines, Shelby Gaines

Starring Maya Hawke, Rafael Casal, Philip Ettinger, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Laura Linney, Liam Neesan

Last September, actor and filmmaker Ethan Hawke appeared on a podcast with Catholic evangelist Bishop Barron. The occasion came just as his newest film was set to premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, which received mixed reviews. The discussion was about Hawke’s fascination with the life and literature of the Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, and how he’d come to be hired by his daughter Maya Hawke (Stranger Things) to direct her in a film about the life of her favorite writer.

The film finally received a limited release this month, with the star going on a 12-city roadshow promotional tour to help promote the film with special Q&As. I had the opportunity to see his talk in Milwaukee, where he discussed the complicated relationship between creativity and faith, the nature of her complicity as an artist with a complicated reputation, and why the author has been so influential in his spiritual life. While it left me with a lot to think about, the film itself proved quite thought-provoking in its own way.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Brief moments of violence, physical assault, blood, and domestic violence. Scenes of a sick woman suffering from lupus and taking treatments for it.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language throughout the film.
Drug/Alcohol References: Casual alcohol consumption.
Sexual Content: Nothing is depicted and there is no nudity, but several scenes depict sexual foreplay and tension.
Spiritual Content: The main characters are Roman Catholics, and talk disparagingly about Protestantism, while several dramatizations explore religion and atheism.
Other Negative Content: Depictions of casual racism, frequent domestic violence, and challenging themes about faith and suffering.
Positive Content: Powerful religious and spiritual contemplations about the relationship between religion and creative expression.

Review

Wildcat is a fascinating movie, often for reasons outside of the picture itself rather than because of what the movie is. It’s a rather personal film for director Ethan Hawke, being a director collaboration with his daughter Maya Hawke. It’s a fascinating work of spiritual filmmaking with much to say about the nature of the creative process. It’s a work of feminism that explores how a fierce female artist with serious character flaws still manages to forge ahead in a male-dominated artistic space. And finally, it’s a biopic about the life of Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor is, in the words of Roman Catholic apologist Bishop Robert Barron, one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. She was a pioneer in southern gothic fiction, writing short stories and novels about life in the American South that depicted the brutal and grotesque world of white trash culture and perceived intellectual and moral failings of fundamentalist Protestantism. She viewed this from the outside through her Thomistic worldview, capturing what she snidely describes as the hollow world of “churches without Christ”, while she still portrays this world as being filled with God’s grace in her stories.

Ethan Hawke, coming from his background as a practicing Episcopalian, progressive activist, and acclaimed actor (First Reformed, Boyhood, Before Sunrise, Training Day, Dead Poet’s Society), approaches the subject of O’Connor’s life with tremendous nuance, seeing her as a flawed person in a deeply flawed world who nonetheless can grow spiritually to understand how she can merge her artistic strengths with her Roman Catholic beliefs. He also addresses many of the claims of her alleged racism by highlighting the way she approaches the issues in her stories.

Flannery O’Connor died at the young age of thirty-nine, after suffering more than a decade with debilitating lupus which forced her to abandon an adventurous life as a writer for a modest one living in the rural south. She lived amid the Jim Crow South, recognizing its flaws but also being complicit in the society that allowed them to exist.

The film is mostly set in the early 1950s, upon the eve of her attempts to publish her first novel Wiseblood, which proved to be too unconventional initially for her publisher. O’Connor is still an ambitious 25-year-old writer, fresh off of her education as a pretentious Iowa writer’s group, and has published several short stories in academic magazines. After discovering she is suffering from terminal lupus, she returns to her mother’s home in rural Georgia to live a quieter and less physically demanding life and struggles with how she can be both a good Catholic and a good writer.

The movie synthesizes a complicated story that addresses all of these aspects of her life, focusing on her returning south, and grappling with her immediate mortality, her doting mother’s racism, her detachment from the southern Protestant culture around her, and her intense loneliness, which was brought on in part by her prickly and confrontational personality. This is best expressed in the scene depicting one of O’Connor’s most famous real-life quotes, in which she awkwardly interrupts a party of former Christians talking casually about communion by saying, “If it’s just a symbol, to h*** with it!”

The movie accomplishes this by interweaving dramatizations and quotes from O’Connor’s short stories and letters with its non-chronological narrative; among them, The Comforts of Home, Everything That Rises Must Converge, Good Country People, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Revelation, and Parker’s Back. The movie double casts Maya Hawke and the actresses playing her immediate family members to highlight the autobiographical elements that O’Connor wrote into her story and her tense relationships with the people she was implicitly satirizing—herself being among them.

This strategy is ambitious but it occasionally leaves Wildcat feeling ponderous and tangential. The film loses momentum at points as it goes into these well-made digressions, coming at the cost of the film’s thesis—which is trying to be about how this flawed Catholic woman can synthesize her life’s work with her faith, avoiding letting her ego and ambitions consume her. These scenes are remarkable dramatizations, but cause the film’s pacing to drag and lose steam.

Regardless, the film’s ambition is admirable by itself. As Maya Hawke has pointed out in the press tour, there’s something honorable and rare about trying to capture the life of a woman who is this disagreeable and flawed on film while still showing her to be pious, brilliant, and successful at attaining her life’s work. Her version of O’Connor is feisty, lonely, and prickly. She’s brilliant, relentlessly self-critical, and challenged by debilitating tragedies outside of her control. She wants to be more than she is, but she has no choice but to diminish and live a truncated life.

Wildcat is very much an art film and a modest one at that. It indulges itself, but it is also trying very hard to capture a difficult story and a difficult person’s life. It indulges in moments of bizarre surrealism and humor, and it doesn’t always hit home runs. But it is remarkable for what it is. It is remarkable that a major Hollywood artist like Hawke would see so much depth and nuance in a complicated Christian writer like O’Connor, and make it a family project produced by his wife and starring his daughter. It is a lovely work of deep passion that manages to complete the thought it sets out to grapple with, even if it is a bit pretentious.

Positives

+ Great Maya Hawke performance
+ Excellent short story dramatizations
+ Thematically ambitious

Negatives

- Slow pacing and tangential threads
- Pretentious execution
- Difficult to follow narrative

The Bottom Line

Wildcat has received a mixed reception and this is understandable, but its best features make it ambitious, passionate, and fascinating.

 

7

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

Leave a Comment