This year, Ethan Hawke has quietly delivered two of the best performances of his career. The first was in the box office smash The Purge. Torn apart by critics, but made for just $3 million, The Purge deserves, I think, reconsideration by those who lay down film history for all time. One of the things that makes The Purge so good, other than its eery satire of modern times, is Hawke’s performance as the father who is part of the 1% that mostly have the upper hand when it comes to so-called purges. They sit in their giant homes with the best security money (and only money) can buy and some of them even go out hunting. They do this to purge themselves of violent feelings against those who “do not contribute to society.” The Purge is, of course, predictable in some ways – but overall, it’s a solid thriller. Hawke is magnificent as the freaked out father trying to hold his family together. He’s especially great when he has to take up arms, Dirty Harry style.
Hawke’s other memorable work this year, and the one he’ll get the most acclaim for, is his third incarnation as Jesse, one of the two lovers in the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight series. If you watch the three movies all together you’ll recognize Jesse in the third (and best) film, Before Midnight, but you’ll also see a man beaten down by the daily grind of holding a marriage, a family, and a long burning passion together. Jesse is the glue holding the couple together; if left up to Celine they would have long since parted. One gets the sense that Jesse must often pull Celine back from the brink, as he does in both Before Sunrise and Before Midnight. It isn’t that she’s erratic and incapable – it’s that she’s restless and wants to be alone.
He is also the glue in The Purge, where he goes from an indifferent Capitalist to someone willing to put morality before the rules of the game. His fatigue doesn’t come from the endless cycles of trying to keep a marriage together, but from carrying an unspoken burden of a society that has begun to destroy itself; who will go along with it and who won’t will separate the good from the bad, the moral from the immoral.
Watching The Purge and Before Midnight we are reminded of what a versatile actor Hawke really is. His career started with his performance in Dead Poet’s Society and since then, he’s taken on many interesting roles, like his work opposite Denzel Washington in Training Day, and in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He seems to have entered a new realm this year, however, and has become, I think, the actor he’s always hinted he could be.
Gone is the baby fat that made Hawke forever a boy. In its place, bony cheekbones that could cut glass, eyes in a perpetual, skeptical squint, and an expressive mouth that smiles to reveal pointy, stained teeth. He isn’t ugly but he is no longer the beauty he once was. His face no longer betrays is intentions as an actor and he is at last able to be somebody other than a guy with puppy dog eyes.
Both The Purge and Before Midnight are worth seeing for a variety of reasons, but surely one of those is to catch the wind at Ethan Hawke’s back as he leaves behind the boy and becomes something and someone wholly different: a character actor.