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Wildcat: TIFF Film Review

Wildcat is a difficult watch, trying to capture the mind of one of the 20th century’s most frustrating writers in equally frustrating fashion.

Flannery O’Connor is one of the most famous figures of the early 20th-century Southern Gothic literary movement, capturing cutting-edge social issues and showcasing the darker side of society at the time. Her various short stories and two novels, “Wise Blood” and “The Violent Bear it Away,” are important works, but hard to read given O’Connor’s vindictive writing style and harsh characterizations. This is apparent in Wildcat, which is just as harsh as any of her books, and consequently a difficult film to watch and discuss.

As Ethan Hawke transitioned from acting to directing, his style embodies the same genre as Flannery O’Connor, with the miniseries The Good Lord Bird also embodying a Southern Gothic flair. Seeing his daughter Maya read from O’Connor for her Juilliard audition suggested she should play the author herself. A well-meaning move, but the movie itself does not quite deliver on the portrait of this particular writer.

Wildcat is all about the sludgy, backwards America O’Connor wrote about. Issues like racism and the religious atmosphere of the day linger across all of life. O’Connor instead tries to remove herself from that, be absorbed in her writing, and shut out the world. She opposes all social progress, instead trying to play up the horrors of life in her writing. This leaves many questions about the sanity of the character and questions who the audience should support if nobody is likable. This grimy, grotesque exterior of a movie offers little in terms of levity, which creates a dark abyss where happy thoughts do not linger. Such a depressing movie may be too much for many viewers.

The film is nonlinear in its presentation. It flashes back to before the writing of “Wise Blood” halfway through, seeming somewhat jarring. Re-enactments of O’Connor’s stories are spliced together with the moments that inspire them with not much done to delineate fiction from reality. This makes the narrative hard to follow, leaving viewers to question when things happen. The nonlinear approach can work in some movies, but not this one.

Wildcat Trailer (Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Maya Hawke is trying her best but is not quite able to grant any sympathy to the character of Flannery O’Connor in her performance. She moans and complains for most of the movie, and arguments with her mother (Laura Linney, of Suncoast) pit two unlikable characters against each other, except with the other it is on purpose. Not even O’Connor’s lupus diagnosis is enough to sway sympathy for the character. Her love life, her Catholic faith, and being a woman in what is still at the time a men’s profession go under reported, and the character herself is too unsympathetic and cynical to build attachment. Again, this is no fault of the performer, it was just the way she was written which felt lacking.

Those interested in Flannery O’Connor’s work and life story may find something in this movie. It is clear Hawke loves Flannery O’Connor, but his work here is not the best representation of her work. Hawke’s tendencies to overassert character drama and “say the quiet part out loud” drag the film down, with many of its attempts at emotion falling flat. It is a slow, uncomfortable watch, but if that’s your thing, it may be the movie for you. Otherwise, something lighter would be more preferable.

Wildcat premiered at TIFF on September 12, 2023 and will be released in US theaters on May 3, 2024.

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