Flannery O’Connor saw folks in a way few writers did. She saw through them, past their petty prejudices and hollow pieties, to the less civilized selves they so desperately tried to keep under wraps. But it wasn’t just O’Connor’s X-ray vision that made the Georgia-born author such an uncanny reporter on the human condition. She also had the most extraordinary ear, capturing the music of how her people spoke, then lacing into her stories regional turns of phrase one simply couldn’t invent, as if she were embroidering with barbed wire.
To plagiarize (but also to canonize) O’Connor: A good writer is hard to find. Lesser talents have been ripping her off for the nearly 60 years since she died, and rather than do the same, writer-director Ethan Hawke and his mid-20s daughter Maya (whose dead-ringer resemblance to mother Uma Thurman is its own kind of hurdle) do their best to let O’Connor’s words define her in unconventional but appreciative freak-portrait “Wildcat.”
O’Connor was a realist with a gift for the grotesque, and her abrasive Southern Gothic sensibility most definitely informs the film’s tough, rust-colored tone. That said, she was not given to pastiche and other modernist tricks (so popular among her midcentury peers), and yet, that’s the form the Hawkes have chosen here, sampling and remixing elements of her life and work into an audacious — and sometimes arduous — collage, one in which friends and family are often indistinguishable from the Dixie gargoyles she imagined. It’s emotionally exhausting, but audiences come away with a sense of her legacy, as well as an appreciation for the adversity she faced (and, to a lesser degree, a sense of the criticism that has been leveled against her).
A writer writes, or so the saying goes, but in “Wildcat,” we observe Mary Flannery O’Connor (the baptismal name of the devout Catholic, played here by Maya Hawke) doing just about everything else, from attending mass to collecting peacocks, as she gathers string for stories. Until the biopic’s flamboyant final shot — which I’m convinced is the image Ethan Hawke had first and foremost in his head going in — we hardly ever see Flannery pecking at her typewriter.
There is one other clackity-clack keyboard moment, which comes right after the film’s amusing prologue (a fake movie trailer in which Star Drake, the nymphomaniac hellion of her story “The Comforts of Home,” is reimagined as a Herschell Gordon Lewis-style sexploitation star). Otherwise, the idea is to alternate between scenes of O’Connor’s often-tortured personal life and the fictional worlds she imagined — and which, “Wildcat” argues, weren’t so far removed from her own as readers might think.
The grandmother shot dead by the long-haired, scar-covered ex-con (Levon Hawke) in the second of these vignettes — the one who famously “would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” — might as well be her hypocritical, holier-than-thou mother, Regina (played by Laura Linney). Regina even more directly inspires the characters in a couple other O’Connor stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Revelation” (in which Linney’s nose has been modified to look downright piggish), to the extent that the author’s entire oeuvre starts to look scarily more autobiographical than readers typically assume.
Then again, as O’Connor herself put it, “Anybody who’s survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” Flannery left behind more than just her fiction, and Ethan Hawke and co-scenarist Shelby Gaines draw freely from her letters and journals as well. The latter frequently make reference to her profound Catholic faith, which was a defining aspect of both her identity and literary output, but hardly a case of blind belief. The movie is true to this lifelong relationship, which takes the place of any kind of romantic partner.
“Wildcat” acknowledges the intimate connection between Flannery and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Lowell (Philip Ettinger) — or “Cal,” as she called him — and collapses several potential suitors into a sort of composite with him. Life was constantly disappointing Flannery, who was diagnosed with lupus — or “the French Wolf,” as she called it — and obliged to return home after developing her craft in New York, Massachusetts and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Flannery took that frustration out on her characters, as when a one-armed tramp (Steve Zahn) abandons his deaf-mute bride (one of Maya’s many roles) in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” or a traveling Bible salesman (“Licorice Pizza” discovery Cooper Hoffman) betrays a one-armed atheist (Maya again) in “Good Country People.” The young Hawke is quite effective as Flannery, snaggletoothed and severe-looking for someone so young. The actor sees in her subject not a victim so much as a prophet.
A similar strategy of staging O’Connor’s key stories also powered Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s illuminating 2021 “American Masters” documentary about the author, “Flannery” — a good resource for people interested in learning more about her, slightly more open to engaging with accusations of racism and speculation about her sexuality (per one letter, “If you do not sleep with the opposite sex, it is assumed that you sleep with your own”). There, the filmmakers used animation to illustrate. Ethan Hawke favors striking widescreen re-creations, crippled by a theatrical acting style and distracting sound design. O’Connor’s vernacular-infused dialogue is so vital to these twisted parables, but it’s often drowned out here by ambient noise (train engines, farm animals and other background distractions) and a busy, shape-shifting score from Latham and Shelby Gaines.
Though it references work from throughout O’Connor’s career (with the conspicuous exception of “Wise Blood”), “Wildcat” focuses on the early years, when she was struggling with self-doubt and bombarded by criticism, from both her editor (Alessandro Nivola) and her family. Only Cal encourages her. Even so, she finds the conviction to carry on, which, like her religion, required an incredible faith from Flannery. In the film’s weakest scene — but arguably its most significant — Liam Neeson appears as a priest at her bedside. Giving what could be her last confession, Flannery is clearly neither an angel nor a saint. A martyr’s more like it: someone who sacrificed her comfort and that of her readers for the sake of her work.