Wildcat and Why Flannery O’Connor Still Matters

Karen Swallow Prior

Flannery O’Connor was a prophet.

Like all prophets, O’Connor saw and told the truth. What she saw and told was of and for her own time, viewed from the perspective of a devout Catholic living in the Christ-haunted American South of the 20th century. And yet, in Wildcat—the new film based on her life and work, directed by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya Hawke as the author—O’Connor’s prophetic vision stares piercingly into our own day.

Covering just a few years of O’Connor’s too-short life and weaving into the biographical narrative dramatizations of some of her most emblematic works, Wildcat is at its heart a portrait of the artist as a young woman. An imaginative exploration that captures how O’Connor’s real life and real relationships served as fodder for her stories, Wildcat (the film’s title comes from the title of one of O’Connor’s earliest short stories) is as much about O’Connor’s creative process as it is about her art.

One of the film’s greatest feats is packing so many of O’Connor’s life experiences and thoughts—as expressed not only in her stories but also in her Prayer Journal, letters, essays, and lectures—into a dense, intricately woven film that runs under two hours. Hawke’s restraint reflects perfectly the restraint of the life O’Connor lived, one bounded artificially by illness and early death, and naturally by her shy and awkward personality. Such restraints contrast vividly with the exuberance and violence of O’Connor’s stories.

In watching the film, part of the thrill for me—a longtime lover of all things Flannery—was not knowing which of her works would show up or how they’d be worked into the film. For the sake of others who might enjoy that same suspense, I won’t give all of that away—except to observe that it was wise of Hawke to choose some of her most familiar works.

I will mention one story that appears in order to illustrate how O’Connor’s prophetic vision still has much to show us in our own time and even how our own times might vivify her sharp insights into unchanging human nature.

One of the most unsettling of O’Connor’s short stories (there are so many competing for this title) is “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” the tale of a traveling grifter (played in the dramatization by Steve Zahn) who makes off with an automobile after agreeing to marry the young, mentally disabled daughter (Maya Hawke again) of the car’s owner (Laura Linney). In “The Life You Save May be Your Own,” Lucynell, the daughter, is literally trafficked. O’Connor’s stories are all dark and darkly humorous, and this one is no exception. Yet, Wildcat deepens the darker aspects of the story by emphasizing just how defenseless this young girl is and how her mother is rendered simultaneously conniving and helpless in her situation.

There is something about this transaction the mother makes with this stranger—which is on the surface practical and material, but underneath disturbingly sexual—that leaps forward from 1955 (when it was published) to 2024, when any day will more likely than not deliver a headline about sexual abuse occurring in or covered up by church or home or both. Christian symbolism is so tightly woven into this story that it would be difficult to separate out these sacred threads from the sinful ones. But it is, after all, O’Connor’s signature method to marry the mystery to the manner. The innocent Lucynell symbolizes—with her “pink-gold hair and her eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck”—and is literally likened by one character to an angel of God. The stranger—whose missing half-arm gives him, the story notes, the shape of a crooked cross—runs from the grace embodied by this angelic woman.

Like all prophets, O’Connor saw and told the truth.

In all of O’Connor’s stories, grace is offered, usually through means much unexpected. As in life, some receive that grace and some refuse. As all true prophets do, O’Connor not only points out what is evil, but also directs us to the light.

The film’s visuals, including its use of light, are gorgeous and authentic, from clothing and hairstyles to landscapes and building interiors. Cast in a patina of warm browns, turquoises, blues, and greens, the film channels the aesthetics of both mid-century automobiles and the peacocks O’Connor famously raised and loved.

The casting decision to have key figures played by the same actors captures what is strongly suggested by the collected evidence of O’Connor’s body of writings and the facts of her life. The loss of her father to the same disease that would take her own life too soon (lupus), her complicated relationship with her mother (also played by Linney), her disappointment in romantic love, and the fraught racial context of the South are all here, both in the biographical segments and the scenes adapted from her writing. Images of O’Connor using the crutches she needed as her lupus worsened are juxtaposed powerfully with the deformed, crippled characters that populated her imagination. Write what you know, the old adage goes. But O’Connor wrote what she lived deep down in her bones and in her soul. For, as she says, both in real life and in the film, “Fiction is a plunge into reality.”

When asked in a recent interview whether or not people who have not read O’Connor should do so before seeing the film, Hawke responded by saying that he made the film in such a way as to stand on its own, one that offers a complete story in and of itself. While it is impossible for me to imagine how the film might land with those watching who aren’t familiar with O’Connor’s life and work, I think the film succeeds in what Hawke attempted. Even knowing how things would turn out, but not knowing how the film would structure the narrative, I admit a couple of soft punches landed in my gut when certain story arcs drew to their close. I didn’t expect to be so moved when I already knew how these stories would end. This is a testament to Hawke’s own vision and craft.

In one pivotal moment, when she is growing sicker with the disease that will eventually take her life, O’Connor tells her mother that she doesn’t need a doctor, saying instead, “I need a priest.” Earlier in the film, she had chastised her skeptical literary friends’ sentimental views of Christianity by saying, “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” O’Connor actually believed what she said she believed. Wildcat is a film that takes faith as seriously as art, and imagination as seriously as the cross.

Topics: Movies