Ethan Hawke’s Evolution

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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.

19 Comments on this Post

  1. Bryce Forestieri

    He should have been nominated in 2007 in Best Supporting Actor for BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD. That one really stung me hard. It was one of the first times that I paid attention to the Oscars, and I swore this film would get multiple nominations. Of course I had no idea what I was talking about back then.

    Just so you know where I’m coming from I would have perfectly nominated Hawke instead of Tommy Wilkinson (MICHAEL CLYATON) or Phillip Seymour Hoffman (THE INFORMANT). In fact Seymour Hoffman should have been in Best Actor In a Leading Role for BEFORE THE DEVIL. Instead of whom you might ask? I could have done without George Clooney (MICHAEL CLAYTON) or Johnny Depp (SWEENEY TODD).

  2. The Purge: Lena Headey > Ethan Hawke
    Before Midnight: Julie Delpy > Ethan Hawke

  3. Mrs Rochester

    Beautiful post Sasha! Totally agree with your take on Jesse. Despite being almost 20 years since they first met, you can still feel the intensity of his feelings for Celine.

    I also loved Hawke’s work in Gattaca and specially in Tape, another wonderful collaboration with Richard Linklater.

    Let’s hope his magnificent work in Before Midnight will be remembered come Oscar time…

  4. Mrs Rochester

    Dear Paddy,

    I truly believe Ethan Hawke’s work on Before Midnight is on par with Delpy’s.

    The two of them build a slow a fire that explodes in the third act, and every facial gesture by Hawke, every silence and every response is just as powerful as Julie Delpy’s outburst and anger. This is not take anything away from Delpy’s performance, which I found magnificent, but it seems unfair to diminish Hawke’s work just because his is the “quieter” role.

  5. Bob Burns

    again, dues…..

    we forget that there are dozens of seasoned professional, many of them Academy Members, across all the crafts, working hard and doing their best, even on movies that don’t come together. Hawke is one of those guys.

    That’s why I think he has a better chance to win an Oscar than the guys that only do prestige films.

  6. I quite liked The Purge (particularly the concept, although the execution could’ve been a lot better) and I also like Hawke…I even quite like him in The Purge. But I dont think it can be considered one of the best performances of his career. It was fairly run of the mill performance wise in my opinion, highlighted if for anything, just because of the varsatility it showed on Hawke’s behalf.

  7. Gah, ‘versatility’.

  8. rouge en rouge

    No.

  9. rouge en rouge

    Yes.

  10. Dear Mrs Rochester

    It seems unfair to imply that I diminish Ethan Hawke’s work just because his is the ‘quieter’ role.

  11. Radich

    Very nice and inspiring piece, Sasha.

    Dead Poet’s Society may have been officially the beginning of his career, but I will never forget a movie he did when still a child called “Explorers”. River Phoenix was in it too. As a child myself then, I thought he was the cutest thing I had ever seen and loved his name, Ethan, which I said I would give my own child one day. Such a fun ride that movie was, and such a lively performance he gave. Since then I’ve been following his career. Not so closely, but with interest when something new would come out. Jump to 2012; me a 40 year old Brazilian living in NYC and on the streets bumping into him. A smile on my face and the image in my mind of that first movie…

    Now back in Brazil cannot wait for Before Midnight and see what all you guys are seeing.

    Thanks again for the nice piece.

  12. Andrew

    I just saw Before Midnight yesterday,and I was really, really impressed with Ethan Hawke’s performance. Especially the opening scene with his son from his previous marriage I thought was great. I hope Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke get the recognition they deserve for this film. They really are a trio of absurdly talented artists.

  13. I do think Hoffman should’ve snagged a Best Actor slot for Devil that year. He was at least better than Depp in Sweeney Todd. But Hawke would’ve been up against strong competition in Supporting. All 5 guys were deserving that year. My Acting nods would’ve looked like this, if I had a vote:

    Best Actor
    Daniel Day Lewis – There Will Be Blood
    Matthieu Almaric – The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
    Phillip Seymour Hoffman – Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead
    George Clooney – Michael Clayton
    Denzel Washington – American Gangster

    Best Supporting Actor
    Javier Bardem – No Country For Old Men
    Casey Affleck – The Assassination Of Jesse James
    Max Von Sydow – The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
    Tom Wilkinson – Michael Clayton
    Steve Zahn – Rescue Dawn

    Best Actress
    Marion Cotillard – La Vie En Rose
    Julie Christie – Away From Her
    Ellen Page – Juno
    Belen Rueda – The Orphanage
    Halle Berry – Things We Lost In The Fire

    Best Supporting Actress
    Tilda Swinton – Michael Clayton
    Cate Blanchett – I’m Not There
    Saiorse Ronan – Atonement
    Sigourney Weaver – The TV Set
    Marie-Josee Croze – The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

  14. Chris

    Wasn’t his first big movie Explorers??

    And don’t forget his performance in Gattaca.

  15. Bryce Forestieri

    Although I am a fan of Tommy Wilkinson I didn’t care about him in Gilroy’s film. Must be because I thought the movie meh. Hell if I had my way he and Sissy Spacek would have both won for IN THE BEDROOM. And loved Wilkinson in THE GHOST WRITER.

    Anyways, had they been the Forestieri Awards:
    (winners in bold)

    Best Actor

    Daniel Day-Lewis, THERE WILL BE BLOOD
    Ulrich Mühe, THE LIVES OF OTHERS
    Viggo Mortensen, ESTERN PROMISES
    Brad Pitt, THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES
    Phillip Seymour Hoffman, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

    Best Supporting Actor

    Tommy Lee Jones, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
    Casey Affleck, THE ASSASINATION OF JESSE JAMES
    Javier Bardem, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
    Ben Foster, 3:10 TO YUMA
    Ethan Hawke, BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD

    Absolutely love your mention of RESCUDE DAWN. Also, I’d had been easily persuaded to rescue someone from ZODIAC to represent the gifted assemble Fincher put together.

  16. Joseph

    I loved Delpy in the first two. Even gave her my Best Actress award in 2004. While she is fantastic in the third, I was completely engrossed in Hawke’s performance as Jesse.

  17. What impressed me about his performance in THE PURGE was that he was pretty far into denial of basic morality in defense of the Purge. The strongest scene was where he was going to kill the intruder and only when he sees in his family’s eyes what he has become that he stops. I cannot think of another lead actor today comfortable with going so far in popcorn roles. (good popcorn, though)

  18. Let us have the purge to which we are entitled!

  19. keifer

    Hawke and Hoffman were so very good in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” – the last film directed by the late great Sidney Lumet.

    I often wondered why that film didn’t receive more accolades? It was terrific! It also contains stellar supporting performances from Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei.

    Great movie. It’s really the first time I stood up and took notice of Ethan Hawke. He proved he was a really good actor worthy of good roles with this film.

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