The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Ethan Hawke
It’s hard to believe that Ethan Hawke - the poster boy for Gen-X angst - is forty-five. In fact, as I watched him cut a dark, Clint Eastwood-sque figure in the Fantasia Film Festival offering, IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (directed by Ti West) it occurred to me just how subtle and flawless Hawke’s evolution from heartthrob to rugged character actor has been. Has he ever really had a fallow period?
It helps that right from the start. Hawke’s had a good nose for material. Following his debut in Joe Dante’s EXPLORERS, Hawke’s early career included one honest-to-God masterpiece (DEAD POETS SOCIETY), and a couple of other damn good nineties highlights like ALIVE and REALITY BITES, before he made a jump into leading man status with his use by Richard Linklater in BEFORE SUNRISE. While only a modest success in 1995, critics recognized that it was Hawke’s most mature performance to date, and with movies like GATTACA and GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Hawke established himself as one of the best actors of his generation.
The early part of the 2000’s marked a turning point for Hawke, with TRAINING DAY establishing him as a tough guy, something that couldn’t have been easy with him appearing opposite Denzel Washington in one of his most iconic roles. Obviously director Antoine Fuqua and Washington himself recognized this achievement (Denzel tends to dominate his co-stars and make them look like wimps - with some exceptions), with them reusing him this fall in their big-budget MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reboot. After, Hawke dipped his tow into the action universe, with a part in Jean-Francois Richet’s underrated remake of ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (it would have been better received had they not called it a remake) and a supporting part in Andrew Niccol’s LORD OF WAR (one of the few times I’d wager Hawke was really blown-of screen, by Nicolas Cage in one of his best-ever parts).
Perhaps resisting this new, action-hero image, Hawke returned to indies, doing some of his best work ever in BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD, two more BEFORE movies with Linklater, as well as BOYHOOD, and the occasional action/horror part to pay the bills, including SINISTER and THE PURGE. Yet, even among his genre work some of his films proved to be really intriguing, such as the gonzo PREDESTINATION and IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE, which fans still have to wait a few month to see. Through it all, he’s proven to be highly malleable to his directors, able to utterly disappear into roles which may seem like an unlikely fit (such as a low-level tough guy in the good but largely unseen WHAT DOESN'T KILL YOU) while maintaining a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most accessible and intelligent stars (his podcast interview on WTF with Marc Maron is especially good).
A few years ago, I likely wouldn’t have chosen the BEFORE series as Hawke’s finest work. If I was in my twenties, no doubt I’d be saying REALITY BITES is his most iconic performance and blah-blah-blah. But, alas, I’m not in my twenties anymore. Now in my mid-thirties, I’ve found myself going back to the BEFORE series (BEFORE SUNRISE, BEFORE SUNSET, BEFORE MIDNIGHT). Hawke, Julie Delpy and of course Richard Linklater have given us a trilogy to savor and treasure. Being that age, BEFORE SUNSET is my favorite of the series as it’s what I can most closely relate to. Ten years ago, it would have been SUNRISE. Ten years from now, it’ll likely be MIDNIGHT. Kudos to Hawke and Delpy for putting themselves out there so thoroughly, with the line between their fictionalized versions and themselves becoming more and more blurred as the films go on. I hope that at some point we get another installment.
Here’s the thing, I think the original PURGE has an interesting idea, but the execution is lackluster. Hawke is only okay as the bureaucrat forced to deal with the psychos engaging in THE PURGE once it hits his home, and it always surprised me that the film did so well at the box office. That said, I ate those words once I saw the sequel, THE PURGE: ANARCHY, as when the franchise started branching out (and introduced Frank Grillo as its anti-hero) I started to become really enthusiastic about what writer/director James DeMonaco was up to. So while I don’t care for the original PURGE, I can appreciate it for being a micro-budget way for DeMonaco to be allowed to make the more action-driven sequels.
Andrew Niccol’s GATTACA is one of the best films of the nineties. Very prescient, it imagines a world that doesn’t seem too far off, where genetic engineering has created a population of perfect people, in which normal, un-engineered humans find themselves a hated minority. Hawke’s casting is especially good, as back in ‘97, he looked so picture perfect that the idea of him being able to hide among a society of super-people didn’t seem too hard to swallow, while he also suggested a fragile vulnerability underneath. Uma Thurman is excellent as his love interest (indeed, her and Hawke were married for awhile), while Jude Law excels in an early role as a damaged, but genetically perfect superman who lets Hawke take his place in a world he’s learned to despise.
Most girls that came of age in the nineties probably had a poster of Ethan Hawke up on their walls, and chances are if they did - it was a still from REALITY BITES. His Troy in this Ben Stiller-directed classic, is the prototypical Gen-X non-conformist slacker. Charming in his cynical bravado, in this iconic scene Hawke’s Troy explains his various misadventures as a member of the working class, his absolute lack of ambition, and how for him, all he needs for a good day are a couple of smokes, some coffee and conversation, or rather “you, me and five bucks.”
As always, Hawke is much in demand for all kinds of projects. His upcoming films include the studio-driven MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the big-budget VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS (which was the toast of Comic-Con) and a few indies. An eclectic mix for an eclectic artist.
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