Friday, September 01, 2023

Wildcat (world premiere in the presence of Ethan Hawke)

Ethan Hawke: Wildcat (US 2023) starring Maya Hawke as Flannery O'Connor.

Palm, Telluride Film Festival (TFF), 1 Sep 2023.
Introduced by Ethan Hawke, hosted by Julia Huntsinger.

Larry Gross, TFF 2023: " Maya Hawke stars in and co-produced this imaginative depiction of crucially formative moments in the life of Flannery O’Connor, one of 20th century America’s most celebrated novelists and short-story writers. Writer-director Ethan Hawke and co-screenwriter Shelby Gaines entertainingly dramatize scenes from O’Connor’s admired stories—The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Revelation, Good Country People and Everything That Rises Must Converge—placing them in the poignant context of O’Connor’s intense religious concerns, and her struggle with the dire illness that threatened to overwhelm her. Ms. Hawke triumphantly embodies the artist’s unmatched combination of bitter humor, incisive intelligence and spiritual vulnerability. Touching support is provided by Philip Ettinger as O’Connor’s distant but admiring friend, the poet Robert ‘Cal’ Lowell, and by Laura Linney as Flannery’s mother Regina, who barely comprehended her daughter’s genius but was heroically dedicated to keeping her alive. "  –LG (U.S., 2023, 105 m) In person: Ethan Hawke

Festival premiere: 1 Sep 2023 Telluride Film Festival.

AA: Ethan Hawke's Wildcat is a character-driven, performance-driven and nonlinear Bildungsroman of the author Flannery O'Connor, master of the Southern Gothic. O'Connor lived in Georgia; the location shooting was conducted in Kentucky.

Wildcat is a labour of love for Maya Hawke, the star and the co-producer and her father the director. O'Connor's world is covered in its many aspects including a profound affiliation with the Catholic church and a vivid interest in birds, particularly peacocks. Males provide an endless series of disappointments - and grotesque material for stories. "A good man is hard to find". Indeed. Life in the 1940s is marked by racism, open and implicit, confronted by O'Connor. She does not shrink away from freaks and lunatics.

O'Connor is a loner and a stranger. In the South, her loving mother and nearest circle do not understand her literary calling. They would expect another Gone With the Wind rather than dark stories published in Partisan Review. In Northern literary circles there is a chilling distance to her Southern legacy. Her early contacts with the book publishing world are discouraging, but she does not give up her urge to write a new kind of novel.

O'Connor falls lethally ill with lupus / SLE, like her father (lupus originally means "wolf"). She catches a cold in an unheated train. She loses a leg and moves with the help of a prosthesis and crutches. Eventually she commits herself to her study and produces an impressive body of work despite her illness. The film ends on the brink of O'Connor's literary breakthrough. In end captions we learn how the wolf finally came to claim Flannery O'Connor.

Religion in its many manifestations fascinates O'Connor. Kitsch Jesus figures, bleeding tattoos covering an entire back, sacred spaces of churches. In a particularly moving scene a priest (Liam Neeson) visits the suffering O'Connor on her sickbed. Religion has an unusual relationship to artistic calling. "Creativity is nature manifest in us". O'Connor's whole parcours appears as a Calvary.

The performance of Maya Hawke is daring and extraordinary. Laura Linney is also exceptional as Flannery's mother. This is not a regular "illustrated classics" kind of biopic. The pain and the passion is evident everywhere. All other performances are also pitched to the highly charged wavelength. Scenes are relentlessly driven to a high level of impact. Mental imbalance is not ignored; it is flaunted.

The inspired and original cinematography by Steve Cosens and the haunting music by Latham Gaines and Shelby Gaines are essential in Hawke's Gesamtkunstwerk. The parts are formidable, but I fail to be fully moved by the whole. There is the issue of the indescribable secret core, the inner drive, the underlying urge that could create an irresistible current from the beginning to the end.

P.S. 9 September 2023. I have been aware of Flannery O'Connor for decades but never read her. I have only seen John Huston's powerful film adaptation Wise Blood. In Telluride, inspired by Wildat, I bought two Flannery O'Connor volumes, including the complete stories, at the Between the Covers bookstore.

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