Sometimes you just get stuck with some leading men. The rakishly handsome Ethan Hawke, currently starring in “The Woman In The Fifth,” has retained that youthful insouciance despite his mature action star frame. He’s compelling when in motion, clearly a thoughtful actor who can convey several conflicting emotions. In conversation, however, he’s still got that inward intellectual curiosity, as if he’s wondering, what am I, and what is happening around me? No current actor quite clearly portrays dead-serious befuddlement quite like Hawke, who seems equally at home (which is to say perplexed) contemplating the secrets of the universe as he does programming the DVR.
As Tom, Hawke is appropriately vexed as a visiting American trying to re-connect with his ex-wife and their six year old daughter in France. While minimal details are revealed, it’s clear that there was a very good reason they fled, as Tom forcefully enters their new home, prompting a police call. It’s also striking how quickly he departs upon the arrival of law enforcement, busting into a full run as their sirens blare.
It’s revealed that Tom is a college professor stateside, though the suggestion is he’s exited this position, and not necessarily on good terms. Where his journey takes him afterwards, however, feels considerably removed from reality. Despite all his money and luggage being stolen, he manages to secure boarding in a run-down motel, answering to a curt, French-Algerian landlord with a fairly shifty posse. It first seems peculiar that this man would allow Tom to stay without paying rent just yet (while also withholding his passport), until he gives Tom a job. Tom now spends his nights walking crosstown to a small isolated room, where he looks into a surveillance camera observing a single door, which he opens only for those asking for a specific gentleman. Tasked with ritualistically pressing buttons with absolutely no human interaction for hours, Tom’s existential ennui is effectively writ large. Hawke’s brow, not surprisingly, gets quite the workout.
With the revelation that he has written a book, Tom also finds himself participating in a small literary world where he meets Margit (Kristen Scott-Thomas). Beautiful, mature, but coiled like a snake, the boyish Tom nonetheless craves her acceptance immediately, pursuing her as his new muse. Despite her worldly seductiveness, she speaks in banal backstory and literary bromides. She wines and dines his ego, challenges his creative reservoirs, then bathes and seduces him (Hawke’s hysterical “o-face” might be this film’s lasting legacy), and it all seems so carefully removed from the narrative that it’s impossible to put any weight behind these interactions.
Whether the goal of this film is to place the viewer in Tom’s mind is uncertain, though either approach yields questionable results. To assume we’re knee-deep in Tom’s psyche as soon as his bagga- uh, luggage disappears, we’d have to give pause. Of course his dark-skinned landlord will do him a favor in exchange for assisting in possibly illegal activities. Of course his neighbor, a heavy-set black man who blares cacophonous rap music at ungodly hours, doesn’t flush when using their shared toilet. Of course his only ally in the “real” world appears to be a young, blond, buxom Polish bartender. Because “civilized” people flirt by discussing literature not, y’know, listening to rap music. If we’re to assume there’s nothing imaginary about this world, well… that’s also a bit off-putting, no?
Hawke is an attractive lead, and Scott-Thomas brings a smoky maturity to her performance, but the final act of “The Woman In The Fifth” dissolves into a tired what-is-reality refraction of the storyline that stunts any potential character drama originating from this premise organically. At times it recalls Fritz Lang’s fine, forgotten “Scarlet Street” in its dreamscape seductions and bewildered, urbane protagonist. But while that film successfully toyed with noir tropes, this one flits from magic realism, to inner-city domestic drama, to Dostoyevsky-ish moral conundrums without any confidence or conviction. It’s not a reflection of narrative restlessness, but rather storytelling timidity. [C-]