Wildcat review: "Ethan and Maya Hawke's literary biopic is stronger on mood than momentum"

Wildcat (2023)
(Image: © Renovo/Under the Influence/Good Country )

GamesRadar+ Verdict

The Hawkes’ eye for detail is arresting in a fitfully impactful literary biopic that’s stronger on mood than momentum.

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Father-daughter duo Ethan and Maya Hawke have teamed up for this arty, offbeat biopic of American author Flannery O’Connor, with Hawke Sr. directing and co-writing and Hawke Jr. starring and producing. The now-obligatory ‘nepo baby’ accusations are dulled somewhat by the Hawkes’ assertions that it was Maya who took the material to her parents (stepmother Ryan also produces). Plus, if an established star really wanted to give their offspring an unfair advantage in their field, there are far more commercial routes that could’ve been exploited than this knotty, unconventional material.

While there’s no doubting Maya’s commitment to the role, nor Ethan’s passion for the material, those ingredients don’t always make for a hugely palatable film, especially if - as will likely be the case for most audiences outside the US - you’re not familiar with O’Connor’s life and works. Wildcat is a much easier film to admire than love. As it laudably diverges from the cradle-to-grave formula, it’s hard not to wish that its daring approach had resulted in something easier to invest in.

Events from O’Connor’s life - with a particular focus on her troubled relationship with her mother, Regina (Laura Linney) - are chopped up with inserts that dramatise pieces of O’Connor’s writing. Maya Hawke and Linney also play characters in these vignettes, which are slightly distinguished by varying colour palettes. Overall, you get more of a mood board than a truly coherent picture of O’Connor and what makes her work special.

The performances are dialled up in the ‘real world’ segments (heavy accents, false teeth), but go to an even more mannered extreme in the adapted excerpts, which can grate. The film isn’t without humour; pithy bon mots littered throughout illustrate O’Connor’s sharp way with words. But foregrounded is O’Connor’s wrestling with matters of faith, art, and illness, as she deals with the onset of lupus, a disease that took her father from her at a young age.

Throughout, the craft is impeccable. There’s a lived-in tactility to the production design of the early 20th-century setting, and Steve Cosens’ cinematography is rich and textured (Cosens also shot Ethan’s last feature, Blaze, another mythology of a lesser-known US folk figure). Ultimately, though, the combination of handsome visuals and assemblage of sketchy moments leave it feeling more like a museum piece, offering impressions over a gratifying narrative experience.

Wildcat's release date is currently TBC. 

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Matt Maytum
Deputy Editor, Total Film

I'm the Deputy Editor at Total Film magazine, looking after the long-form features there, and generally obsessing over all things Nolan, Kubrick and Pixar. Over the past decade I've worked in various roles for TF online and in print, including at GamesRadar+, and you can often hear me nattering on the Inside Total Film podcast. Bucket-list-ticking career highlights have included reporting from the set of Tenet and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as covering Comic-Con, TIFF and the Sundance Film Festival.