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First Look Review - WILDCAT

Wildcat review
Flannery O'Connor seeks refuge in her writing upon being diagnosed with lupus.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Ethan Hawke

Starring: Maya Hawke, Laura Linney, Phillip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Cooper Hoffman, Steve Zahn, Vincent D'Onofrio, Alessandro Nivola, Christine Dye, Willa Fitzgerald, Levon Hawke

Wildcat poster

Few actors have as much credit in the cinephile bank as Ethan Hawke. While all around him actors are dropping their pants for the Disney dildo, Hawke insists on taking roles he's actually interested in, and working with filmmakers he respects. Nobody bats an eyelid when Hawke name drops some literary figure or arthouse auteur in an interview. We fully believe in him as a well read, thoughtful renaissance man. That wasn't always the case though. Back in 1996 he was roundly mocked for having the audacity to write a novel, met with the sort of snobbish "stick to the day job, stay in your lane" derision we now see levelled at any sports personalities who dare to express an interest in any subject outside their competitive field. Hawke's latest film as director, Flannery O'Connor biopic Wildcat, is so terrible that even the kindest of critics may think Hawke might be better off sticking to his day job after all.

Wildcat review

Hawke has cast his daughter Maya in the lead role of the Southern Gothic wordsmith. And why not? Hawke Junior is a rising star in her own right and a very capable actress. But Hawke Senior hasn't done his kid any favours, filling her mouth with a set of fake dentures that will have you thinking of Mr. Ed when she bites into an apple at one point; a pair of over-sized astronaut's wife glasses; and an "I do declare" Southern accent that wavers back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line like a prohibition bootlegger trying to shake off a chasing G-Man.

Perhaps inspired by his title turn in Michael Almereyda's electrifying Tesla, Ethan has crafted an unconventional biopic, one that incorporates O'Connor's short stories. The central narrative sees the young writer leave 1950 New York, where she's struggling to be taken seriously as a writer, and return to her home in rural Georgia. Diagnosed with lupus, O'Connor finds herself confined to the home she shares with her mother, Regina (Laura Linney), whose conservative, Southern Catholic values the writer firmly rejects.

Wildcat review

The idea that fiction is explicitly inspired by a writer's real life surrounds, as though they're Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, is a pat notion that too many biopics run with. Despite being a well established writer himself, Ethan gives in to this simplistic urge, with the real life characters from O'Connor's life popping up in the recreations of her short stories, Wizard of Oz style. These depictions of O'Connor's writing are ludicrously overwrought and give the impression that O'Connor was little more than a Southern hack, the JD Vance of her era. Maya is cast in each of these stories, but she's not simply playing the fictional characters, she's playing O'Connor playing her own creations, horse chompers and all. Poor Linney is similarly stuck playing a variety of over-the-top caricatures of racist southern ladies. Hers is the sort of awful performance you sometimes get from a great actor when a director has failed to, well, direct them, and they're allowed off the leash. Just when you think the film can't get any hammier, Liam Neeson pops up in a cameo as an Irish priest, a collection of "Ah sure begorrah" clichés that sees the Irish actor struggle to convince as an Irish character.

That scene sees Ethan and Maya try to get to the heart of O'Connor's struggle with her Catholic faith, but it's impossible to take seriously because all we can see are those damn false teeth. In this scene and others, Hawke proves himself a filmmaker who is uncomfortable with visual storytelling. He relies almost solely on O'Connor's words to tell us who she is, rather than using his cinematic toolbox to get inside her head. The script, which he co-wrote with Shelby Gaines, lazily puts O'Connor in a series of confrontations that give her the opportunity to launch into a monologue that crudely spells out her philosophy regarding writing, religion and various other topics.

Wildcat review

Not everyone comes out of this mess minus their dignity. Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Philip Seymour and breakout star of Paul Thomas Anderson's Licorice Pizza, proves the highlight of the film as a fictional salesman in a reenactment of O'Connor's story 'The Good Country People'. Unlike his more experienced co-stars, the young actor captures the Southern Gothic vibe, delivering a performance imbued with the charm and creepiness that defines that sub-genre. Thanks to Hoffman's late intervention, the audience may leave the film with a curiosity for O'Connor that the rest of the film fails to inspire.

Wildcat is in US cinemas from May 3rd. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.

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