In Five Films

In Five Films: Ethan Hawke

Extremely prolific, always interesting, we rundown five essential performances to coincide with the release of his latest film Tesla

Ethan Hawke is one of cinema's most consistently engaging, interesting, and prolific movie stars. Having first appeared in a number of small roles throughout the 80s, his breakthrough came with Peter Weir's inspiring school drama Dead Poets Society, after which he continued to carve out a place as one of the most unpredictable actors of his generation, appearing in quiet dramas, explosive thrillers, cerebral sci-fi films, and plenty of films that defy convention.

Nowadays, Hawke moves effortlessly between blockbusters and indies with a “why the hell not?” mentality that makes him entirely unique amongst his peers. Occasionally, he'll write or direct something, no stranger to experimentation, dabbling not only in cinema, but in novels, music, theatre, and television. If there's one magnetic quality that defines Hawke, it's his willingness to try things – to take risks, even when the odds are stacked against him, a trait that tends to make even his failures interesting. Arguably, there's no other actor out there doing what he does, nor with such a varied body of work. As such, he's an easy star to take for granted.

To celebrate the release of his latest movie, the puzzling but fascinating anti-biopic Tesla, we look back at over three decades of Hawke movies and try to pinpoint his distinct sides in just five films. Here's to the next three decades…


Dead Poets Society (1989)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It is Robin Williams who we tend to remember most (and how could we not?) as the inspiring teacher at the heart of Dead Poets Society, imploring his students to stand on their desks and “seize the day.” But Peter Weir's boarding school-based drama is notable for bringing Ethan Hawke to Hollywood's table – and I'd argue that the film doesn't work anywhere near as well without him to ground Williams' more exuberant turn. As well as acting as a perfect summation of Hawke's early career, he displays a precociousness here that would run into his later roles. But his Todd Anderson is a quietly sensitive soul who slowly comes into his own, bring Hawke the performer to light. It's a commanding performance one that starts in the shadows. Interesting to note that Hawke was on the verge of giving up acting after this, but the film's huge success resulted in so many offers that he kept at it.


The Before Trilogy (1995-2012)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Cheating really, since this is actually three movies, but what are you gonna do? Hawke plays the loquacious writer and dreamer Jesse Wallace across three distinct films in Richard Linklater's trilogy, comprising Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Before Midnight. Of all the characters he's played, it stands to figure that Jesse is the one that's most like the real Hawke (he co-authored the character, basing certain aspects on himself). And what is Jesse, but brilliantly smart, charming, funny, but also alternatively arrogant and pretentious, and maybe even a philanderer. But Hawke's embracement of this character's unshakeable romantic worldview is what makes Jesse so attractive – the actor's dizzyingly passionate and layered turn rendering him as a fully-formed person, whose foibles even serve to make him all the more interesting, and whose chemistry with Julie Delpy makes for one of cinema's most tangible relationships. Absolutely, we must believe that Celine would actually agree to spend a day in Vienna with a complete stranger for the entire Before series to make sense. And thanks to Hawke, we totally understand why she does.


Training Day (2001)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It is no easy feat going toe-to-toe with a powerhouse performer like Denzel Washington – especially when the character is as convincing and charismatic and downright scary as Alonzo Harris. In Training Day, Hawke plays the role of rookie Jake Hoyt, brought on a ride-along that just happens to double as the worst day of his life. Hawke's purpose here is as an observer to Washington's increasingly bad habits and criminal activity – he can handle himself, but knows when to pick the right kind of fight. Cast in a role that, before Training Day, might have seemed at odds with the more sensitive, arty characters he'd come to represent, he makes a very believable and subtly intelligent turn as a man who slowly realises he's in a terrible situation. This role also represents the side of Hawke's career that has seen him positioned as an unlikely action movie star (see the underrated remake of Assault on Precinct 13). The difference with Hawke's action heroes? We get to see the anxiety and fear bubbling beneath the surface. For his trouble, he also earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Boyhood (2014)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If it seems excessive to include what is technically the fourth Richard Linklater movie to this list, so be it: Hawke's Oscar-nominated performance in Boyhood, a film shot over the space of twelve years, offers a brilliant portrait of fatherhood that has the benefit of being genuinely lived-in, doubling as a poignant look at this actor as he passes through the stages of his life and career. As Mason Snr., Hawke gives us a single dad who thrives, makes mistakes, fails, and eventually flourishes over the span of a decade, transforming before our very eyes. Searching for happiness, he's alternately optimistic, impulsive, and flawed, but fundamentally a good father who only wants the best for his kids, exemplified here during a trip to a bowling alley where he refuses to let them use the bumpers, since “life doesn't work that way.” There's a boy-ishness to Mason Snr., too, implying this film's title is not solely in reference to his son. It's a testament to Hawke that his performance, split by the years, hangs together so beautifully. It might be his best performance of all. Sorry, performances.


First Reformed (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Ethan Hawke teamed with Taxi Driver's screenwriter Paul Schrader for this sublime drama about a priest on the brink of a breakdown. In the process, he earned some of the best notices of his career. It's a truly dedicated performance – quieter than what we'd come to expect from Hawke at this point, voice rarely raised. As Father Ernst Toller, he spends much of the movie trying to convince others to put their trust in a God that he himself has lost faith in. The slow, undoing of this man is hard to watch, though on Hawke's part there's still an understanding of the film's blackly comic soul – an absurdity that he factors into his performance without ever going over the cliff. Instead he finds the exact right pitch to best match Schrader's exemplary material, somehow making the tired trope of an alcoholic priest into something fresh-feeling. First Reformed seemed to usher in a new stage of Hawke's career in which anything and everything suddenly seemed possible. Hawke's recent output makes a convincing case for such a reality.

Tesla is now available on various streaming platforms. You can read our full review here.

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