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Sometimes when you finish reading a good novel or collection of short stories, you look forward to picking it up again it in a year or two or 20, to reenter its world and discover new wisdom in its powers of observation, new flashes of light in its turns of phrase. Ethan Hawke’s Wildcat casts a similar spell, so rich is it in detail and nuance and creative juice. Drawing upon the distinctive voice of Flannery O’Connor, it’s a sublime portrait of a great writer, a movie I can’t wait to see again for its visual elegance, its electric leaps between an author’s life and her work, and the delicious, playful intensity of all the performances, with Maya Hawke and Laura Linney each taking on a half-dozen interconnected roles.
At one point in Wildcat, Flannery, embodied with terrific wit and feeling by Maya Hawke, rails against the notion of writing from an outline. However carefully crafted the film’s shifts between its protagonist and her creations, they never feel like outline-generated plot points or a product of the School of Three-Act Screenwriting. The seams between “reality” and “invention” are always organic, alive with discovery. That’s certainly a reflection of Ethan Hawke’s sensibility, and it might also be attributed to the involvement in key roles of musicians, who tend to work from a place of essence rather than methodology — the writer-director’s daughter, Maya, producing for the first time in addition to acting, and co-scripter Shelby Gaines, who with his brother, Latham Gaines, also contributed the inventive acoustics of the score.
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Christine Dye, Willa Fitzgerald, Levon Hawke, Liam Neeson
Director: Ethan Hawke
Screenwriters: Ethan Hawke, Shelby Gaines
1 hour 48 minutes
As he did for his docuseries The Last Movie Stars, Hawke has drawn upon the talents of a number of actors from the New York film and theater community. Some play characters from O’Connor’s novels and story collections, some real-life figures in her life. Maya Hawke and Linney occupy both realms. There’s the fraught but affectionate bond between a highly educated, piercingly intelligent and often exasperated Flannery and her very proper mother, and then there are the ways their personalities and relationship are transposed to fictional scenarios. Crucially, the screenplay is inspired too by the author’s Prayer Journal, written when she was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published in 2013, half a century after she succumbed to lupus at age 39. Her Catholic faith was as elemental to her identity as her scalding insight and irreverence.
The short story that gives the feature its title isn’t one that’s enacted onscreen, but its theme of death as an imminent reality is at Wildcat’s core. The no-goodniks who drift through O’Connor’s Southern Gothic landscape are also part of the mix, but not the extreme physical violence; Hawke and Gaines’ screenplay is concerned with exploring mother-daughter dynamics and subtler forms of interpersonal assault.
The drama’s pinwheel of fictional characters revolves around the biographical moment when an ailing Flannery, 24 and hitting roadblocks in her quest to be a published novelist, returns to Georgia and learns that she has lupus, the disease that killed her father. (Christine Dye delivers an outstanding turn as the person who reveals the diagnosis.) She’s working on the book that will eventually be published as Wise Blood (and dedicated to her mother, Regina), and the hesitations of Rinehart editor-in-chief John Selby (Alessandro Nivola), not to mention his suggestions that she outline her story, leave her frustrated and indignant. Like the publishing bigwig, Regina (Linney) thinks Flannery should write more reader-friendly stories, following in the mega-selling footsteps of another Georgia native, Margaret Mitchell.
Sometimes well-meaning and often sorely mistaken, the fictional mothers Linney portrays, with delightful gusto, are exaggerated spins on Regina’s old-school sensibility. They’re variously yackety, tough, deluded and full of condescending righteousness — a composite rendering of Southern white women of her generation. In “Revelation,” Ruby Turpin sits in a doctor’s waiting room judging the people around her as she does everyone, her enormously self-satisfied hierarchy based on race and economic class.
Flannery’s infirmity, unconventional looks and take-no-prisoners nonconformity find expression in these women’s daughters. Lucynell Crater, who hasn’t learned to speak, is helped and then abandoned by the appropriately named Tom T. Shiftlet (Steve Zahn) in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” from A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the only one of O’Connor’s three story collections to be published during her lifetime. In “Good Country People,” another story from that volume, Joy Hopewell, highly educated, rebellious and with an artificial leg, has a traumatic close encounter with a Bible salesman (Cooper Hoffman), who bears the hilarious name Manley Pointer and hides a twisted heart.
The titles of the excerpted stories don’t appear onscreen; it’s all of a flowing, multifaceted piece. Transitions between 1950 Manhattan or Milledgeville, Georgia, and an imagined scene from a story are triggered by the emotional push-pull between Flannery and Regina, and signaled by the precise but never heavy-handed design elements and camerawork. Cinematographer Steve Cosens’ eloquent widescreen compositions range from sophisticated symmetry in New York settings to the wild and woolly what-ifs of Flannery’s stories. Production designer Sarah Young and costume designer Amy Andrews Harrell move effortlessly between worlds real and invented, physical and emotional, in exciting ways. Expressionist elements slip into the refined simplicity of Regina’s home: the motifs, in interiors and outfits, celebrating O’Connor’s beloved peacocks and other birds.
Traipsing to the mailbox in a sweatshirt and mink, Flannery is no isolated hick, but a graduate of a prestigious writing program who knows many of the period’s leading authors, among them her dear friend “Cal,” aka Robert Lowell (Philip Ettinger, a fascinating blend of sincere and elusive). Happily-ever-after romance is not a goal, but still, the sting registers in Maya Hawke’s performance when he impulsively declares his love and instantly qualifies that statement. (He’ll soon be involved with a sophisticated and conventionally beautiful writer, Elizabeth Hardwick, played by Willa Fitzgerald.)
But Cal’s belief in Flannery’s writing is absolute. He invites her to read a story to his workshop, and it’s clear that no one in the group has ever before heard anything like the clash of sex and religion in “Parker’s Back,” detailing a devout woman’s marriage to the tattooed and flailing Obadiah Elihue Parker (Rafael Casal).
When an enlightened big-city literary type suggests to Flannery that she soften the language some of her white characters use in reference to Black people, her sharp response, “I prefer not to tidy up reality,” speaks to complex and awful facts of life that Southerners lived and which many Northerners didn’t want to understand, let alone acknowledge — a preference for condemnation and silence that persists, in more structured ways, to this day.
With her unfashionably unironic religious devotion, too, Flannery stands apart from the New York intellectuals. Later, the very real give-and-take between her and a priest (Liam Neeson, superb in a welcome bit of quiet away from action-thriller terrain) is stirring in its unadorned directness. That Wildcat contains a scene of such stripped-down, affecting soul-searching and also a comically shimmering visitation by Jesus (Mehmet Can Aksoy) — arriving to set one of Linney’s deliriously self-certain characters straight — and that both fit perfectly, is a testament to the feature’s robust dreamscape, deeply rooted and in full flower.
Many movies about young writers capture the ambition and the struggle. Wildcat understands those parts of Flannery, but in its attention to the ways life and art infuse each other, it conjures a liminal place of magic and lifeblood, of foreboding and mischief. The black-and-white “prevue” trailer that opens the movie with a burst of tawdry, breathless, serious fun (and Vincent D’Onofrio as a sheriff on the trail of scandal) is a perfect nod to the Southern Gothic categorization for O’Connor’s often shocking stories.
Like all genre labels, this one is ultimately more convenient than illuminating. In its attention to metamorphosis, brought to brilliant life by Maya Hawke and Linney, Wildcat understands that the two-way process between artist and art is beyond classification, and has no beginning or end. “The world is made for the dead,” a character from a story declares, the screen filled with a shattered windshield and a chilling sense of omen. In the next instant, Flannery rises from her typewriter, shaken to the core.
Production companies: Renovo Media Group, Good Country Pictures, Under the Influence Productions
Cast: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Christine Dye, Willa Fitzgerald, Levon Hawke, Liam Neeson, Laketa Caston-Hosey, George Sheanshang, Matthew Kimbrough, Demetrius T. Wheeler, Mehmet Can Aksoy, Daniel R. Hill, Jan Falk, Connor Lysholm, Owen Phillips, Chaney Morrow, Amelya Hensley, Kevin Downes, Brittany Gillstrap, Father Matthew Hardesty
Director: Ethan Hawke
Screenwriters: Ethan Hawke, Shelby Gaines
Producers: Joe Goodman, Ryan Hawke, Karri O’Reilly, Cory Pyke
Executive producers: Wojciech Frykowski, Shelby Gaines, Eric Groth, Maya Hawke, Brian Tetsuro Ivie, Gregory Daniel King, David Kingland, Ralph Winter
Director of photography: Steve Cosens
Production designer: Sarah Young
Costume designer: Amy Andrews Harrell
Editor: Barry Polterman
Composers: Latham Gaines, Shelby Gaines
Sales: United Talent Agency, Creative Artists Agency
1 hour 48 minutes
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