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Ethan Hawke’s 13 Best Performances — IndieWire Critics Survey

30 critics wrote about their favorite Ethan Hawke performance, and — in a testament to the actor's extraordinary career — they picked 13 different ones.

Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)

Ethan Hawke is having one hell of a year, and on both sides of the camera. After starting the summer with a profoundly moving turn in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” he’s ending it with a pivotal role in Jesse Peretz’s romantic comedy, “Juliet, Naked.” And as if that weren’t enough, the guy also wrote and directed a musical biopic about the late country-western legend, Blaze Foley, which is just beginning to expand across the country.

As a tribute to Hawke’s long and restless career, this week’s survey asked critics to pick their favorite of his performances to date.

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood

Ethan Hawke’s a curious creature; there’s hardly anyone who can flit between arthouse stuff and big-money studio schlock (“Getaway”, “Daybreakers”) as effortlessly as he, and it’s tempting to pick something like “Predestination” or his bit role in “Valerian” for the sheer chutzpah of it. And I want to avoid Linklater, mostly because I can’t pick just one “Before
movie to single out; he’s so singularly brilliant in the whole trilogy. For that reason, I have to land on Hank from Sidney Lumet’s breathtaking final film, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” the hapless, in-over-his-head brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s desperate financier.

Hawke often gets saddled with underrated straight-man performances alongside big, showy actors (“Training Day”, anyone?), but his Hank holds up superlatively even next to Hoffman’s breathtaking mania. He’s a guy who’s stepped too far into the criminal underworld, without the smarts or the cunning to back it up; it’s a great showcase for Hawke’s uncanny ability to switch from aw-shucks naturalism to panicked histronics within a single line. It’s a tense, anxiety-ridden performance that’s impossible to tear yourself away from, easily one of Hawke’s most dynamic. Sure, he gets to pal around and have a nice time with Richard Linklater, but few directors have pushed him to the brink quite like Lumet.

Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Cinemayward.com

I’m not sure why it took this incredible interview with Stephen Colbert to make me realize it, but Ethan Hawke is one of my favorite working actors. From his early work in “Dead Poets Society” to this year’s metaphysical masterpiece “First Reformed,” the guy simply exudes passion and verve as he wholly pours himself into a wide variety of acting projects, both on and off screen. The “Before Trilogy” is my favorite film trilogy, and while it’s nearly impossible for me to rank which chapter in Celine and Jesse’s story is the strongest film overall, I think Hawke’s performance in “Before Midnight” is his most mature and complex.

There’s a comfortability Hawke and Julie Delpy have with each other, a chemistry which brings out the best in the other actor/character, even–maybe especially–when they’re verbally sparring. I think this is why the lengthy hotel room scene in “Before Midnight” is so distressing and emotionally weighty–we’ve spent years falling in love with these characters who are falling in love with each other, so a threat to their relationship feels like a threat to love itself. In this, the trio of Delpy, Hawke, and Richard Linklater have captured the beautiful transcendence of ordinary human connection and conversation: laughter and arguments, glances and gestures. In the final scene, when an exasperated Jesse tells Celine, “if you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It’s not perfect, but it’s real,” I think Hawke-as-Jesse is also speaking to us (the audience), reminding us that cinema, for all its illusions and fantasies, has the capacity to reveal and redeem reality itself.

Rob Thomas (@robt77), Madison Capital Times

I’m cheating a little in picking “Before Midnight,” because so much of what makes that performance great is what Hawke has built on top of the performances in the previous two “Before” films. We’ve become so enamored of the talky, funny, philosophical Jesse from the first two movies that it takes a while to realize that there’s something a little smug and self-satisfied about the latest version. The walk-and-talk conversations with Celine don’t feel quite as organic as they used to. Where Jesse once used his gift for language to try and understand himself and the world, in the final hotel room argument he uses language to obfuscate and equivocate.

Hawke seems to relish the chance to reveal a darkness (and, more significantly, a weakness) in a character who has built up such audience goodwill. That performance, to me, symbolizes how Hawke has cleverly made the shift from an earnest young performer to a middle-aged character actor who seems to seek out roles that complicate his old nice-guy image.

Millicent Thomas (@MillicentOnFilm), Social Editor at Screen Queens

I wrote a piece recently for Screen Queens on what Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” taught me about love, so this is fitting. I think Ethan Hawke gives such a subtle and authentic performance in that film, you can hardly tell there’s a script. The chemistry between him and Julie Delpy is simply perfect, and for this reason, I’m convinced he gave one of his best performances. Not to say he isn’t great in pretty much everything let’s be honest.

Hoai-Tran Bui, (@htranbui), /Film

I may be biased because “Before Sunset” is one of my favorite films of all time. But this Richard Linklater film stands the test of time partially because of Ethan Hawke’s natural and understated performance. After “Before Sunrise,” we knew that Hawke’s Jesse Wallace was a pretentious, slightly arrogant young man, but nine years have added an air of melancholy to the character we fell in love with in the first “Before” film. Still slightly pretentious, Jesse is now a disillusioned shell of his former self whose weariness shows on his very face (the thinner face and more prominent cheekbones help). But when he stares at Julie Delpy’s Celine, his entire body lights up with giddiness and anticipation.

There’s a spontaneity to Hawke’s performance in “Before Sunset” that helps you settle into the rhythm of “Before Sunset,” and a vulnerability to his character that makes you hang on every word he exchanges with Celine. It may not have the flashiness of his turn in “Training Day” nor the tormented power of his performance in “First Reformed,” but it ultimately feels real — like Jesse Wallace is a man of flesh and blood and regrets. So when Jesse morosely admits, “I feel like if someone were to touch me I would dissolve into molecules,” I believe him.

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film) Freelancer for The Wrap, MovieMaker Magazine, Remezcla

“Before Sunset,” the second film in Linklater’s exquisitely written trilogy, shows Ethan Hawke’s Jesse at his most uncertain. Nine years of adulthood and his fair share of disappointments have worn down the young confidence he exudes in the first film, while the quotidian security seen in the third installment is yet to come. Jesse in 2004 has achieved success with his novel and has transformed from a buoyant backpacker into a suit-wearing author. Reuniting with Céline (Julie Delpy); however, awakens a hope in him that there might still be a chance to be happy and not wonder what could have been for another nine years. Even if his physical appearance has changed, Jesse’s fondness for spontaneity remains intact. He, like the films, is at a serendipitous turning point. In “Before Sunset” Hawke captures his character’s naiveté and boyish qualities once again, but this time with an edge granted by maturity. This Jesse is in an emotional limbo that’s fascinating to watch, because their love is no longer a one-night-stand but it’s still not on firm ground.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson

Maybe it was when he turned 40 back in 2010, but Ethan Hawke has quickly matured personally and artistically right in front of our eyes.  Compared to other performers born in the same 1970, Ethan Hawke could have easily become another forgotten child performer like Ricky Schroeder, a flash-in-the-pan like Chris O’Donnell, or wild hit-or-miss candidate like Vince Vaughn.  Instead, his continuing improvement and initiative to challenge himself has earned him respected esteem on par with fellow 48-year-olds Matt Damon, Rachel Weisz, and Uma Thurman.  He has gone from being the smirking cinematic poster child of Generation X to one of the most steady and meaningful actors working today.

The Ethan Hawke film performance that turned my head the most towards recognizing this new mature stature was Robert Budreau’s 2016 festival fave “Born to Be Blue.”  The actor played jazz legend Chet Baker in a non-traditional biopic set mostly in 1966 that follows the trumpeter through his calamitous collapse and professional comeback from injury, drugs, and personal demons.  Hawke eliminated his usual Linklater-borne bouncy loquaciousness and spun a withdrawn cocoon of uncomfortable and trapped subtlety to play this tortured husk of a man with greatness still in him.  He succeeded as the essential nucleus and his dedication was visible in every scene.  For me, “Born to Be Blue” stands as his most complete lead performance to date, an Oscar-worthy one better than Andrew Garfield and Ryan Gosling’s nominations that same year.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812filmreviews.com

“Born to be Blue.” Maudlin performances of drug addicts in cinema are now cliché, but it’s the porcelain nature of Chet Baker and Hawke’s portrayal of him that’s addictive and unique. Hawke understands the fragility every drug addict or former junkie tries to ‘medicate.’ He’s deftly aware of Baker’s need for acceptance from his peers: Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the fear that he won’t measure up. That knowledge is borne in every flash of doubt, in every piece of self-loathing, in every instance of the artist’s sanguine energy that Hawke portrays.

At one point, Baker says that heroine gets him inside the notes, and Hawke himself lives in every beat of Baker’s life and subconscious. In the fateful scene when the artist must choose between Methadone and heroine we know the ending Baker will choose, not just because we are aware of his life, but because of the wretched fragility Hawke demonstrates.

In fact, though we know he will ultimately succumb to his addiction, by a sliver of a needle we hope he doesn’t fall. The narrow distance between hope and resignation is where Hawke’s performance thrives.

Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room

In “Boyhood,” Hawke’s character initially looks like he’ll be unpleasantly familiar—the deadbeat dad whose carefree attitude teeters on the edge of emotional abuse—but Hawke (who had a strong hand in creating the character and so deserves at least as much credit as his frequent collaborator Richard Linklater) swerves away from that easy route and instead digs down deep to create this portrait of a man who’s flawed but committed to growing, or at the very least doing the best he can today and hoping he’ll be able to do so again tomorrow. Parents in movies are so often two-dimensional representations of ideas rather than fully complicated human beings fumbling their way through a phase of life they never could have adequately predicted, but there’s never been a character or performance that demonstrates this essential truth—that for so many of us with kids, growing up is a journey that continues long into parenthood—as powerfully and endearingly as Hawke’s.

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

There is something quite remarkable about what Hawke accomplishes in “Boyhood” — specifically, how he’s able to convey a smoothly compelling character arc, depicting Mason Sr.’s own gradual journey to maturity and stability — while receiving relatively little screentime. The advice that Mason Sr. imparts on his son, piece by piece throughout, is as much an affirmation of what he’s clearly struggling with himself, rather than feeling like intentionally spaced ideas sent in by a sporadically present figure from beyond.

Fran Hoepfner (@franhoepfner), Bright Wall/Dark Room

Call me a sap, but Ethan Hawke’s best performance is in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” The film quite literally bridges the gap between the frenetic waywardness of early Hawke and the endearing resolve of late Hawke. No doubt the emotional core of the movie the literal boy growing up before the audience’s eyes, but Hawke’s growth over the course of the film is truly the most natural and unintended. In the years that have passed since, it’s Hawke’s performance––his vulnerability, his stoic optimism––that makes me the most emotional and nostalgic for the years we’ve watched him grow on screen.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor of Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages

Ethan Hawke has made a career out of playing lovable schlubs, in films as far-reaching as “Sinister,” and “Maggie’s Plan.” Richard Linklater’s decade-spanning “Boyhood” gave him an unprecedented opportunity to show off what he could do, and how he’s matured as an actor, thanks to his spending 12 years in front of the same camera. The fact he’s a divorced father himself clearly informs his performance as the likeable, but lacking, character known simply (and evocatively) as “Dad.”

Hawke’s interactions with his onscreen children bleed with a sincerity that can only be created via real-world experience. It’s easy to imagine him talking to his own daughter the way he does with Lorelai Linklater’s Samantha, in particular. We see him struggling for, even at times forcing, a connection with his children in the fleeting moments he has with them. There’s an earnestness, a deeply-felt pain to Hawke’s performance here that’s rendered even deeper by watching him literally grow older in front of our eyes.

Hawke has explained recently that he never wanted for anything more than to feed, clothe, and house himself and his kids, meaning he doesn’t ever have to take projects just for the payout. As a performer, he feels everything fully, and that’s never more evident than in “Boyhood” in his unflashy, open, vulnerable, and completely honest portrayal of a father just trying to do right by his kids.

Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4) We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu

Something I admire about Ethan Hawke, in general, is that he’s the sort of actor who always commits to his role. That may not be as apparent as it is with other, flashier actors, but it is why “Boyhood” is my pick for Hawke’s best performance. Not only do we watch a character who becomes multifaceted by way of the approach to making Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life epic, but we see Hawke deliver in the way we’d expect, for a Linklater drama, and see that improve over the course of 12 years. Like the films in the “Before” series, Hawke has very visibly grown as an actor over time. While other performances from recent years also standout, the fact that I have lots of favorable things to say about “Boyhood” speaks well to a unique scenario where I can both see Hawke play into the young and insecure aspects of his supporting role as Mason Sr. early on, and watch how things shift for both the performer and the character, as the film gets closer to the year of its release.  For a feature that relied on an experimental concept, I believe we see the benefits specifically when it comes to such a reliable performer (these days especially, whether its a genre film or otherwise) as Hawke.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for FreshFiction, SassyMamaInLA

Perhaps it’s what makes Ethan Hawke one of the most versatile actors of his generation, but every director he’s worked with has brought out a different shade of coloring from the affable talent. Seeing him explore different facets of his craft is what makes him such a riveting performer. One of those roles is that in filmmaker Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” While audiences had already fallen in love with their extremely intimate, soul-searching collaborations in the “Before Trilogy,” it’s here that Hawke’s keen ability to fully form a character over time transcending the film’s gimmicky hook. Not only was he able to maintain a steady hand over the twelve years of filming (an astonishing feat), his character arc penetrated audiences hearts. He delivers an unassuming, tender and touching performance as Mason Sr., who transforms from a slacker to a safe bet throughout the course of the film. Though it’s always a pleasure to see Hawke work in a technical, defined dramatic space, it feels like a delightful treat to see him blossom in a more casual, unconfined environment.

Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute

Hawke’s filmography is remarkably varied and adventurous. If I have to choose one performance, I’m going with Dad in “Boyhood”. While Patricia Arquette’s glorious work won the headlines and awards, Hawke’s work is also wonderful to watch, a study in maturity, evolving over the years of filming. It’s measured, smart and touching. And somehow beautifully calibrated, even though no one truly knew what the path would be when the work began. Kind of like life, rarely captured on film.

Carl Broughton (@carlislegendary), Editor-in-chief for thefilmera.com

I am still a rookie when it comes to Ethan Hawkes numerous roles, but Ethan Hawke’s best performance is his role as a father, husband, and man looking for happiness in “Boyhood.” It is a performance that could have only been done with a less and more experienced Ethan Hawke to capture the maturity of a immature father to someone who is willing to guide his children on the right path. Watching his character physically change over the years with his thought process is something you rarely see in film. The talks he has with his son throughout the film go from simple boys will be boys to a complex layer of nuance.

Sarah Welch (@dodgyboffin), Bright Wall/Dark Room, Think Christian

“Daybreakers” is not a very good movie, but it is exactly my kind of bad movie, and Ethan Hawke’s performance is what really does it for me. It’s the exact flavor of late-aughts over-processed neo-noir horror that I liked the idea of but was too scared to actually watch when I was in high school. Hawke plays a vampire doctor searching for a substitute for a blood supply that is quickly running out (most of the human population has been turned into blood drinkers). He could go full camp, like Sam Neill and Willem Defoe do in this film, but for most of the runtime we feel his inner turmoil in the heft of his shoulders and in the way that he walks. There’s a moment in which a giant bat-like monster rendered in cheap plastic CGI menaces Hawke: the scene could be laughable, except for the way that Hawke throws himself backwards, radiating fear  without overselling it. He’s a killing machine, albeit a reluctant one who wants a cure for his disease, and he’s terrified, and we believe it all.

Emily Sears (@emily_dawn), Birth.Movies.Death.

Ethan Hawke always brings such authenticity to his characters that it’s difficult to label one performance as his best. My favorite remains the first time I saw him on screen as timid student Todd Anderson in “Dead Poets Society.” In Peter Weir’s powerful film, Hawke perfectly embodies his character’s youthful ache for something more while struggling to overcome a crippling lack of confidence. The pivotal scene where Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) helps Todd to confront the fear that “everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing” emboldens his character. While too painfully shy in the beginning to utter an entire sentence, Todd Anderson gradually becomes the type of student who inspires everyone else to stand up on their desks for what they believe in. Hawke’s ability to own the room was evident even at this early stage in his career, and it continues to be a joy to watch him seize the day to bring a wide variety of memorable characters to life.


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