A Cinematic Plunge Into Faith: ‘Wildcat’ Is an Experience, Not Just a Movie

FILM REVIEW: Wildly unconventional movie plays like a short story written by the enigmatic, gifted O’Connor feels.

Maya Hawke, who plays Flannery O’Connor and several of her characters, in “Wildcat."
Maya Hawke, who plays Flannery O’Connor and several of her characters, in “Wildcat." (photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories)

Ron Austin is a veteran TV writer and astute cultural philosopher and has been the Yoda of a new generation of serious Catholics in Hollywood for more than two decades. Ron used to tell us, “It might be that the traditional model of the Hollywood film, with the classic three act structure, relatable protagonist, and invisible filmmakers behind it all, may not suit a truly Catholic storytelling.” 

Ron was developing the idea that because the Gospel is fundamentally unconventional as a narrative — the victories are largely interior — visionary Catholic filmmakers would need to probably break through the conventional hero’s journey, which has been the backbone of the American movie storytelling since the Golden Age. 

Writer/Director Ethan Hawke is not a Catholic filmmaker. But his new biopic about the enigmatic Catholic Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, is wildly unconventional as a movie, and plays brilliantly — very much the way an O’Connor short story feels. Wildcat is weird, jerky, brooding, unsettling, and full of the profound conviction that — as O’Connor put it — “grace is out there.” 

Early on in the movie, there is a confrontation between the still very young writer and a New York publisher in which O’Connor protests that her book, Wise Blood is not a traditional story and shouldn’t be judged that way. Intentionally, Wildcat itself is not a traditional story-movie. Hawke described his main preoccupation in making the movie as, “Is there a cinematic way to tell the story of Flannery O’Connor?”

The two key aspects that set Wildcat apart from most faith-based films is the high level of cinematic talent in evidence, and the beautiful creativity that Hawke uses to make O’Connor’s Catholic faith and spirituality more “visceral,” using Pope St. John Paul II’s word from the Letter to Artists. The four-time Oscar nominee knows what he is doing in creating worlds and crafting characters on the screen. So, too, does the professional team he assembled as actors, production designers, and especially editors. 

It’s quixotic why a movie about a Catholic icon made largely by unbelievers abounds in expressions of our faith, even as the recent movie about a nun and saint, Cabrini, made by committed Catholics, shied away from any presentation of Catholic spirituality — or even just Christianity. Wildcat is a religious experience. Cabrini was not. It is vital that we start to ask why it is that non-Christians invariably make the best Christian films?

The creativity in Wildcat is first in the way Hawke uses O’Connor’s stories themselves as the principle metaphors for her spiritual journey as an artist. There are many intercuts in the film that achieve the effect of connecting the stories and their psychological impact on O’Connor. These moments might be lost on some viewers who are unfamiliar with O’Connor’s oeuvre, but for O’Connor fans, they are wonderful. 

Hawke has an instinctive sacramental vision of cinematic art and knows that imagery must play a key role in any movie about the ineffable. So, Wildcat is brilliantly edited to weave moments from the stories seamlessly into O’Connor’s real life. 

The story vignettes we see are indicative of what’s going on inside her, “outward signs of inward grace.” For example, the moment when the Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” fires his gun into the camera ostensibly killing the grandmother in the story, there is a sharp cut to O’Connor collapsing onto her typewriter. Just great use of what cinema can do, which is to say very powerful things but with cinematic technique and mainly without words. 

O’Connor herself noted about the need for writers who are wrestling with the transcendent to use symbols in her essay on her story “Good Country People.” She wrote, “The reader makes the connection and it works on him, even if he isn’t aware of it.” This kind of storytelling is built on a fundamental faith in the audience — that the viewers are smart enough to read the lyrical poetry in a movie without having to be told what everything means. The absence of this kind of trust is what makes so many faith-based films banal. Faith-based artists often have no faith in people.

As mainly a work of art instead of a work of story, Wildcat is less concerned with an arc of transformation for Flannery O’Connor, and more focused on where she came from as an artist and what motivated her to create her wondrous and — to many conventional Christians and publishers — offensive stories. 

Wildcat is reminiscent of The Passion of the Christ in that way of not meaning to be a regular story. Mel Gibson noted to me about his movie, “Everybody knows the story, right?” This conviction freed him up to instead focus in his movie on rendering the Stations of the Cross for cinema. He wasn’t at all invested in plot development and structural act breaks, and if you go to The Passion of the Christ or Wildcat looking for them, you will think these movies are bad stories. 

I have frequently heard people new to O’Connor assert that her stories are bad, too. They’ll wag their heads and say, “The characters are unlikeable,” or ‘There never seems to be a clear ending.” I always want to respond with what a brilliant Catholic literary scholar said to me when I was in college and also missing the genius of O’Connor: “It’s going to take the Church a hundred years to figure out where Flannery left us in terms of story.”

Still, even without the niceties of three-act structure, Wildcat absolutely does show O’Connor’s deepening struggle to please both God and men in her work. The movie borrows heavily from the prayer journal O’Connor wrote while she was in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her prayer in that period was to write something very good that would also be holy. This desire forms the character’s clear motivation in Wildcat

Hawke has noted, “Instead of trying to make a traditional cradle-to-grave biopic, I set out, with my writing partner Shelby Gaines, to use the work of Flannery O’Connor to explore the creative process as an act of “faith.” Once that came into focus, the form of the film came naturally.”

Any review of the film would be incomplete without commenting on the exceptional acting performances here, and particularly the stunning use of the two main actors — Maya Hawke and Laura Linney, to each play seven parts. This was another way that Hawke explored the escalating tension between Flannery and her mother, Regina, weaving into their interactions the stuff of the stories. The actors truly commit to the often difficult material — O’Connor’s stories always feature sinners deep in their self-deceptions. Both women deserve Oscar nominations.

Wildcat is a beautifully made art movie that tries to show where a writer’s real life and beliefs, and her literary creativity meet. It makes the viewer feel the effects on an artist of what O’Connor called “the plunge into reality” that is storytelling. It is thoughtful throughout in writing, acting, filming, and editing. 

In a letter about the making of the film, Ethan Hawke noted, “I saw Ms. O’Connor’s spiritual journey as a perfect opportunity for a film about the intersection of faith, imagination and human creativity.” As an art film that somewhat depends on the viewer knowing something about Flannery O’Connor, it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But for people who love Flannery O’Connor, it’s a piece of heaven.


Wildcat doesn’t have an MPAA rating. It has adult themes and the suggestion of some violence and sexuality.

Maya Hawke as American writer Flannery O'Connor in the 2024 film "Wildcat."

Jessica Hooten Wilson on ‘Wildcat’ / Father Dave Pivonka on Title IX (May 4)

Flannery O’Connor shares the big screen with some of her most memorable short story characters in the new indy film ‘Wildcat.’ O’Connor scholar Jessica Hooten Wilson gives her take on the film and what animates the Catholic 20th century writer’s prophetic imagination.Then FUS University President Father David Pivonka explains why Franciscan University of Steubenville has pushed back against the Biden administrations’ new interpretation of Title IX, which redefines sex discrimination to include a student’s self- asserted ‘gender identity.’