Wildcat lacks O’Connor’s oddness, but brims with passion

In this unconventional biopic, Ethan and Maya Hawke weave vignettes from Flannery O'Connor's short stories with snippets from her life and letters.

SDG Original source: U.S. Catholic

Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat opens, very nearly, with a familiar scenario: a dispiriting encounter between a young artist with an exacting creative vision and a conventional corporate gatekeeper with a checklist approach to what sells. The scene depicts a real-life exchange between 24-year-old Mary Flannery O’Connor (played by Maya Hawke, the director’s daughter) and her editor at Holt Rinehart regarding her unfinished novel Wise Blood, which the editor wants to conform to typical literary norms. “Sometimes I feel like you’re trying to stick pins in your readers,” he remarks and proceeds to make the same point twice more in different words.

Like a similar framing device in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which has Jo March trying to sell a story to a hardnosed newspaper editor, this scene in Wildcat can be seen as a filmmaker’s statement. “I’m amenable to criticism,” Flannery says, and then qualifies, “but only within the sphere of what I’m trying to do.” She adds: “I feel that whatever virtues the novel may have are very much connected to the limitations you mention.… I’m not writing a conventional novel. Wise Blood, when finished, will be hopefully … just as odd, if not odder than the nine chapters you have now.”

If Hawke set out to make an odd film about an odd writer — perhaps even poking unsuspecting viewers expecting a conventional biopic — one of Wildcat’s oddest moves comes at the very beginning, before the movie proper. The first thing we see is a mock 1950s-style trailer for Star Drake, an imaginary adaptation of O’Connor’s short story “The Comforts of Home.” Plot elements are recognizable from the source matter (a typically hair-raising tale of parent-child conflict, in this case between an adult son and his elderly mother over a troubled young woman, identified as a nymphomaniac, on whom the mother takes pity). But the tone of the trailer suggests a lurid melodrama with little if any of the cultural atmosphere or spiritual resonance of O’Connor’s darkly comic, nondidactic, yet deeply Catholic work. An onscreen title then announces, “Our Feature Presentation.”

Wildcat bills itself as “based on short stories by Flannery O’Connor,” though it could equally be said to be based on O’Connor’s letters (the source for much of Flannery’s dialogue) and her prayer journal (used to depict her prayer life in earnest voiceovers).

Is this over-the-top trailer a satiric indictment of prior O’Connor adaptations (for example, The Life You Save, the 1957 small-screen adaptation of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” which starred Gene Kelly and was ruined by a tacked-on happy ending)? Is Hawke skewering his Hollywood milieu as O’Connor skewered the pieties and foibles of the rural South? If so, this may also be an oblique acknowledgment of the difficulty of doing justice in a screen adaptation to so idiosyncratic a writer; it may even, perhaps, be a confession of Wildcat’s likely “limitations.”

Biography, Religious Themes