“No risk, no reward” sounds like a title that Flannery O’Connor might give a short story, in the manner of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” In Wildcat, a new biopic about O’Connor, we see her live out this maxim, taking a perilous leap of faith. In portraying her gamble with honesty and discipline, the film succeeds where other recent films involving Catholicism have failed.

On the one hand, Wildcat, directed by Ethan Hawke and starring his daughter Maya, showcases the rewards of faith as manifested in O’Connor’s work. Known for her uncompromising Catholicism from behind enemy lines, whether among Georgia evangelicals or New York bohemians, the Southern writer retained a rich, almost mystical prayer life, documented in a journal published in 2013.

Her faith translated into creative achievement. O’Connor saw herself not as the mastermind of her stories but simply as their conduit or scribe. “Please give me one good story. Let me be your typewriter,” she asked God, paraphrasing the journal. The sentiment is reminiscent of St. Francis of Assisi, who asked God to “make me an instrument of your peace,” or of Mother Teresa, who downplays her own efforts, calling herself simply “a little pencil in the hand of a writing God.”

The payoff of surrendering control and letting God write the story is, according to the film, lavish. Wildcat portrays how O’Connor’s peers, even in the most competitive of settings like the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, saw her talents as otherworldly.

But O’Connor’s life wasn’t all ecstasies of creative genius and literary renown. Faith demands risks, too. “What people don’t realize is how much religion costs,” O’Connor tells classmates at a dinner party. “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” She’s not just criticizing those in every generation who see religion as an opiate, à la Marx. She’s alluding to her own private suffering, which we see take physical form in a heartbreaking scene in which she falls down her mother’s stairs, her body weakened with the lupus that would kill her at 39.

For O’Connor, the tradeoff here is ineluctable. If she believes that God is helping her write something better than she could have done on her own, she must also accept His will in other, less comfortable areas of life. And when her lupus symptoms begin to flare up, that idea is harrowing. “Father, I’m afraid,” she sobs to her Irish priest (Liam Neeson).

But even death can be a gift, Wildcat insists. “With God’s help, you can even see it all as a blessing,” Neeson says of her grim prognosis. The line comes across as tender, not flippant or callous, in Neeson’s magnificent delivery.

And so the shift we see in O’Connor’s outlook after the exchange is plausible and moving. The association of death with grace was a concept, after all, that O’Connor understood, even if hard to remember in the moment. “The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side,” she remarks in an earlier scene, while reflecting on her father’s death. “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.”

Part of O’Connor’s genius is that, rather than resist wonder, she accepts it, allowing it to animate and illuminate her work. And for the moments when acceptance is hard, when she wants to protest, there’s always divine assistance. “Confession and communion will sort you out,” Neeson’s priest reassures her gently, crossing her forehead as she weeps.

This scene epitomizes Wildcat’s most notable accomplishment: embracing a supernatural outlook in response to suffering and death. This contrasts sharply with many recent films that purport to tackle Catholic themes but ultimately balk when it comes to representing its characters’ responses to the divine. The Miracle Club (2023), for example, resembles Wildcat in some ways. It stars Laura Linney, who plays O’Connor’s mother in Wildcat. It tells the story of Catholics battling illness. And it’s set in the mid-twentieth century, which saw upheaval in broader social norms and in Catholic practice. But The Miracle Club has one key difference: while purporting to be Catholic thematically, it neglects to explore the theological drama of a soul’s relationship with its creator. Wildcat plunges right in.

Set in 1967, The Miracle Club follows a group of Irish women, accompanied by their parish priest, on pilgrimage to Lourdes, pursuing cures. Though boasting stars like Maggie Smith and Kathy Bates, the film fails to take faith seriously, opting instead for the shopworn themes of science and sisterhood. The moment of epiphany, after much melodrama, is a scene between Linney and Bates, in which they reconcile decades-long differences and resolve to “find the best doctors” for Bates’s tumor.

Taking faith seriously in film doesn’t mean that every pilgrim should find a miracle cure or forsake modern medicine. Neither Wildcat nor O’Connor did either of these things. And not every film needs to operate from a supernatural premise. But films that purport to be Catholic (Padre Pio is another example) should at least try. All too many Catholic-themed films default to naturalism’s feeble replacements for the transcendent. Wildcat is a welcome exception.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next