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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.

Alonso Duralde (@aduralde), TheWrap, What the Flick?!, Linoleum Knife, Who Shot Ya?

I wouldn’t necessarily categorize Hawke’s performance in “First Reformed” as an “it’s all been leading to this” moment, but there is something that feels like a culmination, or at least a high point in a career still in progress, in this powerful turn in Paul Schrader’s extraordinary film. “Diary of a Country Priest” was no easy slot to fill for either actor or director, and Hawke captures every tone of shame and redemption, weakness and virtue, resignation and resolution that this fascinating and flawed character has to offer. His work with Richard Linklater on “Boyhood” and the “Before” films has been exemplary, but “First Reformed” heralds even new facets of this actor that we’ve not previously seen.

Yasmin Kleinbart (@ladysmallbeard), The Young Folks

Like a fine wine, Ethan Hawke has only gotten better with age. At the tender age of 25, he played a hopeless romantic in “Before Sunset;” he spent (literally) 12 years of his life playing an absent father in “Boyhood;” and now, at the age of 48, he steps into the mind of Reverend Toller in Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed.” Hawke doesn’t mean to entertain you as the conflicted priest. He wants to invite you into Toller’s tumultuous mind as he struggles with his faith and guilt.

Despite his quiet demeanor, Hawkes’ performance is anything but silent. He is the town’s shoulder to cry on, but he himself is crying for help. Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to His Creation? Toller is the living embodiment of that question and starts to physically and mentally degrade as the film progresses. In a film about how big business distorts religion, Hawkes’ depiction of a man tortured by doubt is nuanced, frustrating, and memorable hours after the credits have rolled.

Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), Freelance, The Young Folks, Chicago Reader

Ethan Hawke’s recent performance in “First Reformed” as Reverend Ernst Toller was mesmerizing, and not just because director Paul Schrader deliberately left his fate open to question. Ethan Hawke’s voiceover was less a reflection of Toller’s state of mind than how his demons were threatening to consume him. Hawke’s Toller was as sympathetic as he was unlikable, and correct as much as he was delusional. If that sounds contradictory, Hawke makes it seem less so as he immerses us in the mind of a man slowly losing his hope and sanity in a world that’s left him increasingly bereft of reasons to cling to faith.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today

I am approximately the same age as Ethan Hawke, and first really noticed him as an actor of significance in Richard Linklater’s touchstone (for me) 1995 film “Before Sunrise,” in which his and actress Julie Delpy’s twentysomethings discover love on a train in Central Europe. The film’s two sequels, the 2004 “Before Sunset” and the 2013 “Before Midnight,” have kept that couple’s story moving forward in exciting and profound ways, and so by all rights I should pick one entry from this trilogy as my go-to for this survey. Still, with the passing of years, Hawke always seems to find new depths within himself to explore, and so I’m going to go with director Paul Schrader’s most recent movie, “First Reformed,” instead.

In it, Hawke plays a tormented priest at a lonely upstate-New York Dutch Reformed congregation who finds himself called to redeem the world’s sins through personal sacrifice. Gaunt and ridden with despair over past missteps, Hawke’s Father Toller is a man who has hermetically sealed himself off from all hints of feeling. When a troubled young couple’s plea for help forces him off the emotional sidelines, he slowly gains purpose – however twisted – and we watch in awe as a feverish passion returns to his gaze. Hawke builds the performance with great restraint, layer by layer, each escalation of behavior a subtle shift forwards towards the final, cathartic madness that awaits. It’s a master class in acting, and so far the pinnacle of a very fine career. Given how effortlessly charming Hawke also is in the just-out Juliet, Naked, it’s clear that there’s very little he cannot do.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com

Ethan Hawke’s best performance is as Vincent in “Gattaca”, mainly because he isn’t playing a disaffected slacker. Seriously though, this is a performance Hawke has to filter through a couple layers and the result is a tightly controlled performance that still suggests the seething interior life of his character. Gattaca is a blatant segregation allegory in which genetic perfection replaces race as the societal dividing line, and Vincent finds himself on the wrong side of it as he’s born with a heart defect. As someone who “passes” as perfectly healthy, Vincent is rarely ever just himself in a scene which is where Hawke’s double performance comes in. He’s so identifiable with playing boho types it’s always fun to see him do something more formal and his performance as Vincent is downright austere (which only makes his infrequent emotive demonstrations even more effective). Bonus points for being one of the few Ethan Hawke characters you don’t want to punch in the face.

Karen M. Peterson (@karenmpeterson), Awards Circuit

In a career that includes Oscar nominated performances in “Boyhood” and “Training Day,” as well as the “Before” trilogy, when I think of Ethan Hawke, one of the first films that comes to mind is not any of these. It is “Gattaca,” the strange science fiction film from the 90s. A blend of murder mystery, science fiction, and thriller, this was one of those films that might have felt campy if it was in the hands of anyone other than Ethan Hawke. It follows Hawke as Vincent in an undetermined near future where genetically modified children are the norm. Vincent’s parents chose to go by faith, though, rendering Vincent as genetically inferior and therefore relegated to service industry jobs. But he longs to join the space program and board a ship to Jupiter’s moon of Titan. Through a lot of cunning and great commitment, he goes to great lengths to take on the identity of a more genetically acceptable person, working his way into his dream job. But, of course, things go awry. Hawke takes the audience on his journey with him, where even a single eyelash could mean disaster. We believe it because he believes it. We see all of his future success in his eyes each time he watches another ship take off for the stars.

Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), Collider

Since I’m not really comfortable with the label of “best” performance, as it’s hard to compare Ethan Hawke’s long list of great performances as such different characters with each other, I’ll just say that my favorite performance of his is his portrayal of Troy Dyer in “Reality Bites.” I was 18 years old when I saw the movie in 1994 and loved that it wasn’t the typical, sugary-sweet romantic comedy that I’d previously had to suffer through, at that time. “Reality Bites” spoke much more to who I was, and felt much more real to me, in its friendship and relationship drama. It explored what happens when life doesn’t turn out the way you plan, all of your hopes and dreams don’t necessarily come true, or at least not as fast as you want them to, and you have to work much harder for everything than you expected. Hawke’s performance in the film had a blend of comedy, drama and asshole that made him simultaneously endearing and loathsome in a way that allowed you to understand the attraction Winona Ryder’s character, Lelaina Pierce, had toward him, but also her anger when she railed against him. All of that makes it a movie that I still stop and watch, every time I come across it while flipping through TV channels.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat / Screen Rant

There’s so much great stuff to choose from, but I have to go with Hawke’s work as Troy Dyer in “Reality Bites.” Even if the movie no longer has quite the same punch it did in 1994, there’s no denying that the actor really captured something in that character. We’ve all known a Troy — a scruffy, aimless, angry, self-enchanted-for-no-reason jerk with a soft side. (Or is he a softy with a jerkish side? Doesn’t really matter.) When an actor is so authentic in a role that you sit there thinking, “Man, I know someone just like that!” a very particular kind of magic is being generated. You more or less forget that you’re even watching a performance, because it rings true to such a powerful degree.

I honestly don’t think a lot of actors could have made Troy work. Hawke isn’t afraid to be unlikable in the role, yet he also suggests, ever so subtly, that underneath Troy’s bluster is a well of insecurity that drives all the worst aspects of his personality.The scene where he fights with Winona Ryder’s character, then gets onstage to angrily sing to her is a prime example of what I’m talking about.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine

“Honey, all you have to be by the age of 23 is yourself,” says Troy (Ethan Hawke) to Laney (Winona Ryder) in the 90s cult classic “Reality Bites.” Hawke nailed this role. His portrayal of Troy, a Holden Caulfield-esque self-confident slacker, embodied that weird limbo state of the early 20s, where you still feel like a kid, but the world expects you to act like an adult. With Ben Stiller (who also directed the film) as his competition for Laney’s affection, Hawke holds his own. As Troy, he makes it clear that he’ll never be like Stiller’s character – someone who works for “the Man,” wears suits, and someone who outwardly has their shit together to a degree bordering on robotic.

There’s something endlessly appealing about Troy – in addition to having all the components of a reclusive 90s dreamboat: bookworm, musician, Kurt Cobain-esque long hair that looks as if shampoo hasn’t touched it for weeks – and that appeal is owed to Hawke’s performance. Troy just seems so…free. Of course, he wrestles with freedom-prohibitive constraints like lack of money, lack of direction, etc. But he’s a free spirit. And in a world that can feel like it aims to suppress these types – the free spirits, the dreamers – Hawke as Troy, even some 20-plus years later, remains a breath of fresh air. His ultra-vulnerable performance, his quiet magnetism, and, ultimately, his sweetness, make it a performance worthy of a superlative like “best.”

Brianna Zigler (@briannazigs), Screen Queens

I haven’t seen every Ethan Hawke film to date but I don’t even need to because his best role is the dad from “Sinister.” I’ve seen that movie twice and no I don’t remember the name of his washed-up dad character but I know for a fact that Ethan Hawke put the same amount of effort into it that he put into “Boyhood.” The “Before” trilogy wishes it exuded the raw power of “Sinister.” Sure it has Julie Delpy, but does it have Bughuul? Or Skype chat Vincent D’Onofrio? I didn’t think so. Don’t agree with me? Come to my house in the next five minutes and we can fist fight in my mother’s garden.

Candice Frederick (@ReelTalker), Freelance for Teen Vogue, /Film, Mic

Jake in “Training Day.” Every performance of Ethan Hawke’s career has seemed like a microcosm of the same character, just with different names. Each one is slightly unsure of himself, strangely charming, and navigates through life with an ease that borders on recklessness. But none embody that more profoundly than his performance as Jake, who Hawke effortlessly portrays as a hero in conflict with both society and himself. Jake could have easily been a character that was just another “Denzel Washington sidekick.” But in Hawke’s hands, Jake becomes the yin to Alonzo’s (Washington) yang. And in doing so, Jake stands alone as a character who is just as easily criticized or lauded.

Manuela Lazic (@manilazic), Freelance at Little White Lies, The Ringer, Vague Visages

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, however brilliant its Bressonian script may be, wouldn’t be the masterpiece that it is without Ethan Hawke. The actor’s predilection for portraying difficult and unglamourous emotions such as doubt and self-pity has rarely been put to better use than in this role of a reverend in the thralls of the sharpest of existential crises. Rarely, because another film, some 17 (!) years ago, already relied beautifully on Hawke’s unique sense of pathos. Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day won Denzel Washington an Oscar, and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Hawke, for good reason. Washington is impressive and more badass than he’d ever allowed himself to be at this point, but Hawke is startling in his own way too.

As the subservient (even naive) yet smart rookie narcotics officer Hoyt to Washington’s decorated and ballsy trainer Alonzo, Hawke leans on his sheepishness with taste. He’s the surrogate for the bewildered audience, and his hesitation between fear and amusement when Alonzo hands him some drugs to consume while on the job looks completely genuine. Even though he only follows his superior around, listening to his constant boasting and threatening, Hawke’s Hoyt is captivating because we are anxious to see how he will react to Alonzo’s increasingly bonkers antics. His moments of full blown panic are priceless, but so are those when he brushes danger off with a stupid and nervous smile. Hawke wouldn’t be convincing as an Alonzo – but he’s the greatest leading man when he has to struggle a lot, especially with himself and his reasoning, before reaching his goal.

Question: What is the best film currently in theaters?

Answer: “BlacKkKlansman”

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