The genre cinema of Ethan Hawke

Feature Ryan Lambie
4 Jul 2013 - 06:30

With Sinister and The Purge on his recent CV, and Getaway on the horizon, Ethan Hawke's becoming one of the finest genre actors working...

Mention of Ethan Hawke's name might conjure up some of his critically lauded performances in movies such as Reality Bites, Training Day or Before Sunrise. You might associate him with his successful stage career, or his two well-received novels, or the documentary he made last year about Shakespeare's Scottish Play.

Yet since the very beginning of his career, Hawke has made occasional - and often excellent - forays into science fiction, thrillers and horror. His first screen role was in Joe Dante's 1985 sci-fi fantasy Explorers, in which he played a young boy who, along with his friend Wolfgang (the late River Phoenix) creates a spaceship and heads off on an intergalactic adventure. Although not a financial hit, it was Hawke's first brush with genre cinema, and something of a cult favourite.

Dead Poets Society (1989) marked Hawke's first appearance in an Oscar-winning film, and his performance as Todd paved the way for his breakthrough in the 1990s and early 2000s. His performance as Jesse in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise (1995) was acclaimed for its easy confidence, and he continued to appear in the director's films in the 90s and beyond, including The Newton Boys (1998), Waking Life and Tape (both 2001) and the two sequels to Before Sunrise, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). In each of them, he exuded an edgy, studied coolness.

Right in the middle of that early success, Hawke took on the leading role in Andrew Niccol's Gattaca, a Brave New World-like sci-fi movie about genetic manipulation in a future society. Like Explorers, Gattaca wasn't a commercial hit, but it earned an Oscar nomination and other awards attention for its production design, and favourable reviews from critics.

In terms of awards attention and box-office success, 2001's Training Day was Hawke's biggest success to date. Starring as rookie cop Jake Hoyt alongside Denzel Washington's dangerously corrupt Detective Alonzo Harris, Hawke was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  

Since then, Hawke's steadfastly refused to make obvious or outright lucrative career choices. After Training Day, he continued to star in movies that interested him, such as Andrew Niccol's arms-dealing drama, Lord Of War, or Fast Food Nation, again with Richard Linklater. Admittedly, not all of the film choices were great ones - the 2004 thriller Taking Lives, for example,  was poorly received, in spite of its starry cast, which featured Angelina Jolie and Donald Sutherland as well as Hawke. But regardless of what he appears in, Hawke displays the same level of energy - something that still holds true more than a decade after his name-making turn in Training Day.

In its rather sniffy review of last year's Sinister, The New Yorker described the young Hawke as "the standard-bearer of the adolescent temper, as it wrestled its way into adulthood". But in Sinister, the writer argued, Hawke looked, "unhappy and lost [...]because the prison of middle age, dank with fatherhood and money troubles, is no place for a prince, or for a kid who once dreamed of living like one."

That Hawke looked unhappy is a curious observation to make, given that he plays a crime writer whose moral compass is wobbly enough to move his family into the home where some terrible murders took place years earlier - all in the hope of improving his chances of writing a hit novel. Hawke's Ellison Oswalt spends long scenes on his own, poring over 8mm footage, combing it for clues. For much of Sinister, Hawke occupies the film entirely on his own, and in the hands of a lesser actor, director Scott Derrickson's horror thriller could have been a disaster.

It's to Hawke's credit that he not only takes the material seriously - even when some unwelcome and hokey supernatural elements barge their way in later on - but also brings a certain dogged magnetism to his performance - not to mention an exceptional ability to walk around darkened corridors, eyes shining in terror. Simply put, he puts just as much commitment into his part in this $3m genre piece as he does in a Linklater drama or one of his stage roles.

Better than any other year, 2013 exemplifies Hawke's lack of genre snobbery. Last month saw the UK opening of Before Midnight, the third chapter in Linklater's drama series which, in spite of the intervening years, remained as fresh and engaging as the previous two movies. That film arrived just a week or two after The Purge, a low-budget, high-concept sci-fi thriller about a future America where all crime is legalised for one day per year.

Again, Hawke refused to phone in a performance in what some actors may have dismissed as just another pay cheque. He brought equal parts arrogance and pathos to the central role of James Sandin, a salesman who'd made a fortune out of selling security gear to terrified Americans hoping to shield their families from the Purge. And as masked invaders begin to storm his fortress-like house, we see his smugness and wealthy sense of refinement begin to ebb away, and feral desperation take its place.

The lead characters in Sinister and The Purge would probably be politely turned down by an A-list Hollywood star. But they're clearly the kinds of murky, ambiguous roles Hawke's clearly drawn to, and enjoys playing. In a 2000 interview with Papermag, Hawke talked about the assumption that, after a hit like Dead Poets Society, he'd start courting the kind of roles you might associate with Tom Cruise.

"...people go, [snottily] 'How come you're not a big star?' I don't do it for any other reason than to do the things I like. It's not like I don't want to be more successful. I wish my taste was a little more simpatico with the culture. You just want to be in really good movies, and I feel that life is short - someday I'll be dead  - and time proves all things."

Hawke's decision to take on these kinds of movies appears to come from the same attitude he's had since the earliest part of his career: to not draw a distinction between movies like Before Sunrise and Gattaca, or Before Midnight and The Purge. "You're just speaking to a different audience," the actor told the Guardian, when talking about the irony of an actor starring in a Chekhov play in Broadway theatres while also starring in the genre hit, Sinister.

His skills as a performer, and his appetite for movies that are dark or unusual, makes him an unexpected yet welcome genre star. Although his film choices are very different, he brings a level of intelligence and gravity that's not a million miles away from, say, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, or on one of the actor's good days, Nicolas Cage.

What's more, Hawke's flirtation with genre films is set to continue: October will see the release of another genre outing, a high-octane thriller called Getaway. In it, Hawke plays a retired racing driver who gets back behind the wheel when his wife is kidnapped.

Another Linklater drama, Boyhood, is also coming soon, but there's also the sci-fi film Predestination. Based on a short story by Robert A Heinlein, it's about a secret agency that travels into the past to prevent crime - a sort of cross between Minority Report and Timecop, perhaps.

Only time will tell how good those movies will turn out to be, but we can predict one thing with confidence: they'll both be all the better for Hawke's presence.

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