Authors write from a place of experience, or at the very least insert pieces of their own lives, consciously or unconsciously, into their work. That may be truer for some than others, and there can be greater depths uncovered years after a writer has lived and died within their writings. Ethan Hawke steps behind the camera for his latest feature, Wildcat, to explore the life and, more precisely, the imagination of Flannery O’Connor.
It’s challenging to distinguish biography from fiction in this scrambled narrative, one that cuts frequently from O’Connor’s own life to scenes from her stories. O’Connor (Maya Hawke) has traveled home to Georgia to see her mother (Laura Linney) as she finds her body failing her with the onset of lupus. Hawke and Linney also portray various characters from what O’Connor has written and is beginning to write, and other actors like Vincent D’Onofrio and Rafael Casal pop up in other scenes as characters she has created.
That device is a bold and inventive one, but it simultaneously does the flow of this biopic a disservice. Whereas other recent films about female writers like Emily, Wild Nights with Emily, and the television show Dickinson have played with concepts of time and modernity in their formats, this film makes unmarked jumps between what’s meant to be literally understood as plot and more metaphorical invented content. It speaks to O’Connor’s psyche and her state of mind, at least as interpreted based on present-day knowledge of her history.
The content of O’Connor’s work was not for everyone, and that’s evident in the way that her mother and her friends speak to her, wishing that she might feature nice people with good things happening to them in her stories. The predilection she has towards violence and misery can feel overwhelming, but this also feels like a perfectly fitting tonal look at what the author must have been like and how elements of her life bled into and inspired her writing. While it’s far from uplifting or optimistic, it’s not quite as dark as another film that’s similarly structured and themed, Nocturnal Animals.
Ethan Hawke has clearly shown a passion for the art and history of cinema with his involvement in The Last Movie Stars, a collaborative industry tribute to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. He returns to directing narrative features following his Sundance film Blaze, once again choosing not to appear in front of the camera. His style closely mirrors that of a film in which he starred, Tesla, another off-kilter immersion into someone who was very much ahead of his time and unsurprisingly wasn’t so well-received by those around him and only widely feted much later.
Ethan Hawke directs his daughter, Maya, in the lead role, and she proves to be an exceptional choice. Hidden under large glasses and curly hair, Hawke’s face is expressive and she conveys the discomfort O’Connor feels walking through the world. She also offers a captivating interpretation of the author’s characters that she gets to play. Others in the cast similarly enhance their roles, and the production design, costumes, and cinematography contribute to the effect of making this film feel like a period fever dream. That aesthetic also makes the film a dizzying, sometimes inaccessible viewing experience, one that strays far from any fidelity to a straight narrative. Like O’Connor’s writing, it can be both challenging and rewarding depending on a reader or viewer’s tolerance for this particular brand of storytelling.
Wildcat makes its world premiere in the Special Presentations section at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.