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FILM REVIEW: ‘Wildcat’ directed by Ethan Hawke

“Anybody who’s survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” — Flannery O'Connor

Ethan Hawke is a serious, gifted, and ambitious actor and director who has starred in films like Richard Linklater’s truly original, realistic “Before” Trilogy and “Boyhood” (the film displays a gift for evoking the mundane moments of unfolding lives), and also directed “Seymour: An Introduction,” among other films. In addition, he starred as John Brown in the Showtime limited series “The Good Lord Bird.” He also has performed in plays by Chekhov, Stoppard, and Shepard over the last three decades.

Wildcat” is nothing but ambitious. Hawke’s film cuts between the painful, tortured personal and familial life of Flannery O’Connor and the fictional worlds she conjured up. Sometimes the cutting between the two realities seems mechanical and contrived, but most times it conveys the essence of O’Connor and her brilliant work. The stories project, in a somewhat different form, the emotional reality of O’Connor’s existence. A life she saw only in the darkest, least sentimental terms. To quote O’Connor: “Anybody who’s survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

Writer-director Hawke skillfully directs his mid-20s daughter Maya to play both Flannery and various characters in her stories, many of them grotesque, while Laura Linney does the same for her proper, genteel, Margaret Mitchell-loving mother and all the maternal characters. Maya Hawke convincingly provides us with an invalided (lupus), solitary Flannery O’Connor, who has peacocks for pets and who can sharply and abrasively penetrate all the racist, class-bound, polite pieties—she being dependent on her mother—with which she is forced to live and struggle.

The film powerfully renders one of O’Connor’s most striking stories, “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” where a seething, well-educated son (Maya Hawke) accompanies his conventionally racist and genteel mother on a bus. The son acts as if he hates his mother’s very being, though he is economically dependent on her. The bus trip brings their relationship to a point of revelation as the son gets enraged watching his mother’s patronizing behavior toward a Black child that elicits a beating of her from his angry mother. O’Connor doesn’t like the mother but also has little use for the son’s embittered contempt and sense of superiority, which has little to do with his supposed liberalism. At the conclusion, their value differences turn out to mean little, for they end up in the same place. She has a stroke, and he helplessly cries out for her.

Some of the other stories are less powerfully rendered, though the film gives us a rich parade of O’Connor’s cast of grotesque characters: one-armed tramps; deaf mutes; scarred convicts; non-believing, smooth-talking Bible salesmen; and, of course, mothers who are the apogee of propriety and hypocrisy.

“Wildcat” deals with the intimate friendship between Flannery and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Lowell (Philip Ettinger)—or “Cal,” as she called him. Lowell encouraged and believed in Flannery’s talent as a writer—as few others did—but the relationship never turned into a romance. Hawke views O’Connor’s life as constantly disappointing her, and after becoming ill with lupus, she gives up New York, Boston, and her forays into the literary world. Though she kept on writing, for she saw it as “God rising in me”—the deepest commitment she had.

Flannery O’Connor was also a devout Catholic, though never a conventional believer. Her faith tended to rise and fall, and she felt God could be found in the darkness. In O’Connor’s words: “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.”

Hawke’s O’Connor is a difficult, complex woman whose despair-enveloped existence created an indelible fictional world. Hawke’s film may not be quite as good, but it is uncompromising and striking in its vision.

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