‘Wildcat’ Is as Unsettling as Flannery O’Connor Would Have Wanted

Ethan Hawke has made a movie as scandalous as one of the writer’s short stories.

Why not write something that “a lot, a lot, of people like?” Regina O’Connor asks her daughter, the writer Flannery O’Connor, in the middle of the new biopic Wildcat. The same question might be put to the film itself. It’s not a movie that a lot of people will like. But unlike the author’s mother, I mean that as a high compliment. Director and screenwriter Ethan Hawke has made a film worthy of Flannery O’Connor’s genius.

An epigraph from O’Connor’s essay “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” sums up what Wildcat sets out to do: “I’m always irritated by people who imply writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality.” Fittingly, rather than depict the writer’s life from birth to death, Wildcat uses her fiction to discover what’s real, to “get down under things” to the problem of suffering, the limitations of human experience, the desire for goodness, the habits of evil, and, always present, the longing for God.

The result is a movie as scandalous as one of O’Connor’s short stories—“shocking to the system,” to borrow her words. Her devotees will applaud it; most of the audience will be left wondering what just clobbered them.

After that opening epigraph, Wildcat rolls a fake trailer for a 1950s-style horror flick inspired by O’Connor’s story “The Comforts of Home.” (A mother brings home a wayward, orphaned teen who tries to seduce her grown son. The son attempts to kill the teen, but shoots his own mother instead.) The trailer, starring Laura Linney and Maya Hawke—who also play the roles of Regina and Flannery— sets up expectations …

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