Flannery for the Faithful and the Unfamiliar

REVIEW: ‘Wildcat’

May 10, 2024

When I learned that Ethan Hawke—the actor whose role in Reality Bites made him the epitome of Gen-X cool and therefore an eternal object of my envy—was co-writing and directing a movie about Flannery O’Connor, I was skeptical. What made this dilettantish actor/director/screenwriter/novelist/ex-husband of a Hollywood beauty qualified to treat the life and works of one of America’s greatest writers, a Catholic homebody who wrote about the workings of divine grace with peerless strangeness, beauty, and tragedy? Who was he to cast his daughter, Maya Hawke (Stranger Things), in the starring role? (That is, who was he apart from the writer and director?) I expected disappointment on par with what I felt when Tom Cruise produced a film about my track idol, Steve Prefontaine, or when Ben Affleck starred as Daredevil, my favorite comic-book hero growing up.

My suspicion deepened with reports last September that, "In one scene from O’Connor’s short story ‘Good Country People,’ [Maya] Hawke plays a young woman with a wooden leg who has sex on the floor of a hayloft with a Bible salesman." That’s not what happens in the story! Did Hawke feel compelled to distort this perfect tale for modern audiences? Did he think so little of us—or of O’Connor’s art?

I shouldn’t have worried. Hawke’s film, Wildcat, is marvelous, and he proves himself a worthy steward of O’Connor’s work and legacy. This film will thrill her readers and attract new ones.

O’Connor fascinates her admirers in part because she’s an unlikely literary luminary. She was no mid-century bohemian or beatnik, yet her stories were unconventional and unsettling. A devout Catholic, O’Connor grew up in Georgia before leaving home to attend the prestigious University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her classmates and professors had difficulty understanding her accent but her talent was clear, and she won a prestigious prize that allowed her to begin work on her first novel. But in her mid-20s she was diagnosed with lupus—the disease that killed her father when she was a teenager. She spent her last 14 years with her mother at Andalusia, their farm in Milledgeville, Georgia. Despite these unpromising conditions, O’Connor created some of the greatest short stories written in English, in addition to two novels and countless letters that reveal the depth of her faith, the superiority of her craft, and the bite of her wit.

In Wildcat—the title comes from one of O’Connor’s earliest stories—we first encounter O’Connor, played by a horn-rimmed Hawke fille, in 1950. Her editor is frustrated with the slow progress of her inaccessible novel. "Sometimes I feel like you’re trying to stick pins in your readers," he gripes. Rather than compromise her craft for the sake of publication, O’Connor expresses her formidable sense of independence and artistic integrity. Waiting for a train to take her to Georgia for Christmas, she recounts the episode with her love interest, Cal. Based on the poet Robert Lowell (played by a suitably disheveled Philip Ettinger), Cal professes his love but warns, "I have a lot of eggs to fry." (This is something Lowell actually wrote in a letter to her, but years later.) O’Connor cracks a great comeback—"You let me know when you’re done with breakfast then"—and storms onto a train to Georgia. These early moments establish Hawke’s O’Connor as a compelling combination of brash and brittle.

O’Connor expects to return to New York, but the disease descending on her makes that impossible. Much of the film takes place at Andalusia and portrays O’Connor struggling with both her illness and her mother, Regina (played by Laura Linney with a nice combination of silliness and elegance). Regina and O’Connor’s aunt Duchess (Christine Dye) understand her stories about as well as her editor did. "I don’t understand why you don’t wanna write something that people would like to read," Regina says. The scenes depicting Flannery’s discovery that she has lupus—a diagnosis her mother had kept a secret from her—are heart-wrenching.

Underscoring the disparity between O’Connor’s fate and her aspirations, the film jumps back in time to her first flourishing as an artist, in Iowa City. There, even as O’Connor feels alienated from her more worldly and sophisticated classmates, Cal recognizes and nourishes her talent, and a flirtation develops between them. Central as Cal is, this character may be the most significant biographical liberty the film takes: Lowell was not an instructor at Iowa, and although she developed a crush on him later when they attended an artist’s colony together, the romance was not as intense as depicted. It’s best to understand Cal as a composite of the historical Lowell, her actual mentors at Iowa, and a salesman O’Connor dated in 1954.

One of the film’s strengths is that it consistently presents O’Connor’s faith on her own terms, including moments of doubt and struggle, in part by incorporating passages from her letters and the prayer journal she kept while at Iowa. "Please help me get down under things and find where You are," we hear her pray. An exceptional scene depicts one of her most powerful expressions of Catholic belief. During a dinner party, when a classmate wonders if Catholics aren’t cannibals for eating the body of Christ, the poet Elizabeth Hardwick (Cal’s girlfriend) explains that she understands the Eucharist as "a lovely, expressive symbol." O’Connor, too awkward and passionate to be polite, blurts out, "If it’s a symbol, then to hell with it!" In fact, this episode occurred in New York City, and it was the novelist Mary McCarthy who so reduced the Eucharist. But who can begrudge these biographical departures when it’s so easy to imagine other filmmakers avoiding the episode entirely?

The film also subtly responds to recent criticism of O’Connor’s racial attitudes. The nadir of this reaction occurred in the summer of 2020, when a Catholic college renamed a dorm that had been christened after her. In Wildcat, even as she resists the censoriousness of her classmates—she tells one, in dialogue lifted from one of her letters, that his editorial suggestion is "propaganda, and propaganda even on the side of the angels only makes it worse"—she is also repulsed by the bigotry of her family.

Wildcat is much more than a biopic, though; interspersed throughout the personal narrative are scenes from O’Connor’s stories, what amount to mini-adaptations. We see the stories come alive as she imagines or writes them, including "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Good Country People" (faithfully sans sex scene, I’m happy to report). There’s also a very moving scene between O’Connor and a priest, played by Liam Neeson, that incorporates elements of "The Enduring Chill" and a funny fake trailer for a mock adaptation of "The Comforts of Home."

O’Connor’s gritty fiction bristles with off-putting characters and sudden, often violent depictions of the workings of divine grace. As she put it, "My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable." Wildcat’s mini-adaptations capture what she elsewhere called "distortion … that reveals," the downright strangeness of the stories. They aren’t literal transpositions, but they are faithful in both form and substance, as off-putting and shocking as the source material.

Hawke and Linney play prominent roles in most of these mini-adaptations, giving the reasonable impression that the stories have strong autobiographical elements. They are manifestations of O’Connor’s battles with her surroundings, her provincial mother and aunt, and her pride, the smugness that saw others as provincial.

The film, focusing on the early years of her writerly vocation, concludes long before O’Connor’s death. The final scenes depict both heartbreak and, if not quite an epiphany, her acceptance of the challenges God has given her and her realization of the talents he has blessed her with. The last shot is a fantastical, beautiful, and triumphant image that glimpses at the transcendent art she is about to create.

Readers unfamiliar with O’Connor will encounter a faithful, if fictionalized, account of her life and understanding of her work; her admirers will recognize someone they love.

Christopher J. Scalia is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.