‘Wildcat’ review: Inventive biopic interprets Flannery O’Connor’s stories as it tells her story

Maya Hawke stars as writer Flannery O’Connor in “Wildcat.”

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Director and co-writer Ethan Hawke interprets the life and works of the mid-20th-century American writer Flannery O’Connor in creative albeit sometimes overly melodramatic fashion in “Wildcat,” with the gifted Maya Hawke (daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman), and the always fantastic Laura Linney taking on multiple roles with shatteringly effective results.

Hawke and co-writer Shelby Gaines alternate between biopic segments from O’Connor’s brief and tough life (she died of lupus at age 39) and abridged adaptations of some of her often controversial and shocking short stories, which dealt with issues such as race, crime, class difference, faith and physical and emotional disabilities, often in a blunt and not always reader-friendly fashion.

Some chapters are more involving than others, but with pinpoint production design, makeup and wardrobe capturing the 1950s time period, exquisite cinematography from Steve Cosens and brilliant work by Hawke, Linney and a supporting cast filled with talented actors who get to sink their teeth into some meaty roles, “Wildcat” is an inventive and haunting mood piece with a number of memorable scenes.


Oscilloscope Laboratories presents a film directed by Ethan Hawke and written by Hawke and Shelby Gaines. Running time: 108 minutes. No MPAA rating. Opens Thursday at local theaters.

Hawke plays O’Connor as a sophisticated and smart if socially awkward force who never quite feels like she belongs, whether she’s in New York City or back home in Georgia. When O’Connor is in New York, she’s verbally sparring with an editor (Alessandro Nivola) who would like her work to be more organized and accessible, not to mention dealing with condescending intellectuals, e.g., when a literary figure advises O’Connor to soften the rough and ugly (but altogether accurate) language used by some of her white characters.

On the family farm in Georgia, O’Connor copes with the early stages of lupus and regularly butts heads with her protective but sometimes domineering and clueless mother, Regina (Linney), who wishes her daughter would write more in the style of another Georgia writer: Margaret Mitchell of “Gone With the Wind” fame. Spoiler alert: That ain’t happening, mom.

Flannery is more interested in exploring lightning-rod themes of the present than in glorifying the past. (O’Connor herself also displayed bigotry and has been the subject of much debate among literary and academic historians. A number of articles and essays, perhaps most notably a New Yorker article by Paul Elie titled, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?,” have explored the issue in complex detail. The University of Maryland removed O’Connor’s name from a college dorm in 2020.)

Some of the interpretations of O’Connor’s short stories are brilliant and captivating. In “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” Steve Zahn plays a one-armed drifter named Tom T. Shiflet who shows up on the doorstep of the property where Mrs. Crater (Linney) lives with her daughter Lucy Nell (Hawke), who has never spoken a word. Mrs. Crater pays Shiflet to take her daughter off her hands and Shiflet and Lucy Nell hit the road, and let’s just say it’s not a fairy tale romance.

Another segment, titled “Revelation,” finds the racist and judgmental Ruby Turpin (Linney) in a doctor’s waiting room, spouting her ignorant opinions as her daughter (Hawke) cringes. In a chapter called “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” Linney and Hawke once again play a version of mother and daughter, with the mother in this segment spouting HER ignorant beliefs on a bus and then condescendingly offering a penny to a young Black boy.

Scoundrels abound in the short story adaptations, e.g., Rafael Casal’s O.E. Parker, a multi-tattooed, hard-drinking troublemaker who marries Hawke’s devout Sarah Ruth, and Cooper Hoffman’s Manly Pointer (how’s that for a name!), a smooth-talking Bible salesman who woos Hawke’s one-legged Joy and then treats her with stunning cruelty.

In the “real life” sequences, O’Connor struggles to find peace and spiritual meaning in the world as her condition worsens; there’s a gripping set-piece in which she tries to make some sense of it all with her priest, Father Flynn (Liam Neeson), who is well-meaning but perhaps not fully equipped to deal with the levels and complexities of Flannery’s heartache.

There is a LOT packed into “Wildcat,” perhaps too much, but thanks to the surehanded and creative directing by Ethan Hawke and the fine performances by Maya Hawke, Laura Linney and that outstanding supporting cast, this admittedly challenging material is worth the effort.

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