Celebrating the Genre Cinema of Ethan Hawke

With Sinister and The Purge in recent memory, and Valerian 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, Before Sunrise or Boyhood. You might associate him with his successful stage career, or his two well-received novels, or the documentary he made in 2012 about Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

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 hit, Explorers 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Dead Poets Society (1989) marked Hawke’s first appearance in an Oscar-winning film, and his performance as the withdrawn student Todd paved the way for his breakthrough in the 1990s and early 2000s.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 intelligence and 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. Beautifully shot, and featuring a pair of remarkably detailed, compassionate performances from both Hawke and Jude Law (in his first American role), Gattaca’s arguably one of the best sci-fi films of the 1990s; a peek into a future world where the pursuit of physical and psychological perfection exerts a cruel tyranny.

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In terms of awards attention and box-office, 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. Like Gattaca, the strength of Hawke and Washington’s performances made Training Day something more than rote genre fare: it’s less a conventional cop thriller than a Faustian drama, where Hawke’s rookie winds up choosing the path of the upright lawman or the more lucrative, temptingly wild route favoured by Alonzo Harris. A less smart, capable actor might have withered in the intense heat of Washington’s performance; instead, Hawke quietly matches the veteran Oscar-winner, a fascinating chemistry brewing between the two which, in the final act, flips over into a gratifying final confrontation. 

Since 2001, 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 thriller, Lord Of War – another criminally underrated film, also starring an on-form Nicolas Cage – or Fast Food Nation, again with Richard Linklater.

Admittedly, not all of Hawke’s film choices were great ones – the 2004 thriller Taking Lives, for example, was poorly received, in spite of its starry cast, while 2013’s The Getaway was a rare instance of a thriller where even Hawke’s charisma couldn’t lift it from the genre doldrums. He and Laurence Fishburne were great in the otherwise forgettable remake of John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13. Hawke was supposed to have a role in another remake, Len Wiseman’s Total Recall, but his cameo wound up on the cutting room floor.

But regardless of what he appears in, Hawke always displays the same level of energy, and neither does he shy away from signing up for less than heroic leading roles. Take Sinister, in which he plays a morally bankrupt crime writer who decides to move his family into a house with a blood-soaked past – 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 concerning a string of murders. 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, 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. Better than any other year, 2013 exemplifies Hawke’s lack of genre snobbery. It saw the release 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 paycheck. 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.

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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 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.” 

When we caught up with Hawke last year to talk about his most recent collaboration with Andrew Niccol, the drone thriller Good Kill, we asked him whether working with Joe Dante at such a low age might have informed his informed his later career choices.

“He was my first teacher, really,” Hawke said of Dante. “You know, Quentin Tarantino’s made being a film geek kind of famous, but Joe was a film geek way before. And he loves all kinds of movies. He would talk to me about John Carpenter’s The Thing, he would talk to me about John Frankenheimer’s The Train, he would talk to me about why Frank Sinatra was a great actor… he had no differentiation between high and low. It was a differentiation between people who put thought and artistry into what they did, and those that didn’t. There’s nothing worse, in my mind, than these movies that come out that smell like they’re chasing an Oscar. I’m just allergic to it – it’s like, urgh. And I feel the same way about the ones that are chasing $100m or something. You can smell it on them. They’re playing to the lowest common denominator. A movie like The Purge aspires to be as socio-political as, you know, the early Carpenter films.”

In that same interview, Hawke spoke excitedly about his role in Predestination – his second film with directors Michael and Peter Spierig. Hawke made his first film with the filmmakers in 2009: Daybreakers, a futuristic horror film in which much of humanity’s been wiped out by vampires. It’s a strong, capably-made genre outing, enriched by Hawke’s performance and supporting turns from Sam Neill and Willem Dafoe. 

Predestination, on the other hand, is in another league entirely. Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein, it’s a time-travel thriller about a government agent journeying into the past to prevent a terrorist from setting off a bomb in 70s New York. Hawke shares the screen Australian actress Sarah Snook, and the way the fate of their two characters twists and intertwines has to be seen to be fully appreciated; it’s sufficient to say that both performances are top-notch.

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Hawke’s 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. This year sees Hawke continue to pick varied and interesting roles; he’s made a pair of westerns – TI West’s In A Valley Of Violence and Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven – and appeared in the dramas The Phenom and Maudie in between. Next year will see him make a brief appearance in Luc Besson’s sci-fi movie, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets.

In an interview with Collider, Hawke says he took on the tiny role of a “space pimp” simply because he loves Besson’s movies and wanted to work with him. A pimp, whether space-faring or otherwise, isn’t necessarily a role that a major actor would be in a rush to take up. But then again, it’s Hawke’s refusal to pick ordinary leading-man roles that makes him one of the most watchable actors working. As he said to us in 2014, “the trouble with nice leading men is you know what they’re gonna do – they’re always gonna do the right thing.”