Yep. Ethan Hawke. Don’t believe me? Consider that the actor can currently be seen in one of the summer’s surprise hits, “The Purge,” and its best-reviewed film, “Before Midnight.” Okay, so “The Purge” took a rather insane plunge in week two, but in its first weekend, the horror-thriller took in $34 million on a $3 million budget. (Entertainment Weekly talked with the actor about the film and its success here.)
That’s big. Now, it is hard to calculate how much of the credit goes to Hawke, but I would not dismiss his presence. He has become a reliable, trusting actor, an audience conduit who is attractive and cool, but not as attractive and cool as he used to be. This slightly world-weary look is used to an even greater degree in “Before Midnight,” Richard Linklater’s bitter, oh-so-realistic at what happened to Jesse and Celine after they actually dove into a relationship.
Julie Delpy has the “showier” role, and is marvelous. But it is Hawke who steals the movie. He goes through a wide range of emotions, from his sad expression while watching his son go through airport security to his face when Celine angrily leaves their hotel room, and sells it all.
The three “Before” films with Delpy and Linklater likely represent Hawke’s peak, and it is worth noting that the trio are credited as cowriters of the last two. But while these are the standouts, there many, many other treats to be found in the actor’s filmography.
Most of us first notice him in 1989’s “Dead Poet’s Society,” but by the time of 1994’s “Reality Bites,” I already found him obnoxious. That feeling did not last, however, as “Before Sunrise” came in 1995 and the underrated “Gattaca” and “Great Expectations” came in 1997 and 1998, respectively.
The next few years saw highs (“Hamlet,” “Tape”) and lows (“Snow Falling on Cedars”), but his greatest triumph came in 2001: “Training Day.” Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, “Training Day” did offer up two meaty parts for Denzel Washington, who won an Oscar, and Hawke, who was nominated for one.
The rest of the 2000s were also dotted with success and failure. Hawke received another Academy Award nomination, this time as a screenwriter, for “Before Sunset,” and provided a stellar turn in Sidney Lumet’s final film, 2007’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” He also directed two films, albeit weakly received ones: “Chelsea Walls” and “The Hottest State,” the latter based on his novel.
But the misses outnumbered the hits in this decade: “Taking Lives,” “Assault on Precinct 13,” “Lord of War,” “What Doesn’t Kill You,” “Daybreakers,” “Brooklyn’s Finest.” (I liked “Brooklyn’s Finest,” incidentally, although many did not.)
But last year’s “Sinister” was a truly scary smash, and this summer has finally seen him win both audiences (“The Purge”) and critics (“Before Midnight”) within days. “Midnight” will surely bring him another writing Oscar nomination, and with any luck, he will be in the Best Actor mix, too. (The film is likely to score a Best Picture nomination.)
Last week, a trailer for Hawke’s next film ran before “This is the End.” It is a “Taken”-lite thriller costarring Selena Gomez, horribly titled “Getaway.” This is Hawke back in audience-conduit mode, and something tells me it was a) cheap to make and b) will double or triple that budget in its opening weekend.
Good for Ethan Hawke, always an interesting actor, but now one who — surprisingly — has become a great one.
Ethan Hawke as Jesse in “Before Midnight”; photo by Despina Spyrou, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics