Reality Bites (1994)
This was his first true breakthrough role as an actor. Prior to that, he was in “Dead Poets Society” and Dante’s “Explorers,” but neither of those films made him a household name. “A Midnight Clear,” “Alive,” and “White Fang” are all films worth watching, regardless of whether they made this list.
Then “Reality Bites” came on. He credits Winona Ryder for the attention the film received and says she helped make him a bigger name. His filmography is unpredictable if that’s the right word, and it seems that his feature film debut meant a lot to its audiences back then, even if some of the plot elements can feel outdated or formulaic. The director does a great job of keeping the pace fast and energetic, and one can’t deny the film’s charm.
As part of the central love triangle of the film, Ryder must choose between Hawke or Stiller’s character. Hawke’s character might not be appealing to everyone, but with his goatee, rarely washed hair, and the way he speaks, he created a unique character. The musical shows off his talent as well. Hawke’s character is more of a searcher, a little more philosophical, but his performance made him nearly a star; he had comic sense, he was good at dialogue, he was nuanced, and he was also charismatic. Thanks to “Reality Bites,” Ethan Hawke got more and more opportunities.
Hawke is a champion of genre films. Ethan Hawke’s major contribution to the films “Purge”; “Regression”; “Assault on Precinct 13”; or his previous collaboration with the directors of “Daybreakers” all had something in common: Hawke’s central performance. Hawke is not a big star, but he’s a known name, and his presence assists those smaller thrillers, horrors, or science fiction films to get seen or at least heard by more people.
When it was released, “Predestination” made a bit of a splash on the internet, even if it wasn’t a big box office hit. The film had an interesting plot, a surprising twist, an emotional plotline, some funny moments, and many other qualities you’d expect from a science fiction film. Hawke plays a temporal agent who has one last mission to complete before he retires. He goes back to the 1970s and works as a bartender. Who is he really? What are his plans? Sarah Snook has a larger part in the movie, but Hawke understands the genre so well that he serves the story and the atmosphere so well. Despite not giving away much about his character, he still manages to keep him interesting and engaging. Hawke’s selection of “Predestination” is a good example of how adept he is at picking interesting genre films and how well he understands their sensibilities.
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Hawke’s first real break was in “Dead Poets Society.” He had a decent role in “Explorers” before, but this is a big one. This classic movie follows an unorthodox professor who takes up a post at a conservative, strict college in New England in the fall of 1959 and guides his students toward self-knowledge and the discovery of their own identity. As an introverted student named Todd, Hawke’s performance as him was highly praised; some critics called it “haunting,” and it very well might have been so. Every gesture of his showed that he is a young actor who has a lot to show in the future.
Great Expectations (1998)
Whatever one thinks of the film and Alfonso Cuaron’s treatment of the Dickens classic, Hawke gives a haunting performance here. There are many things to admire in this film, including some of the cinematography, especially the use of color; an impressive soundtrack; and great performances, including Hawke’s.
Hawke is not unfamiliar with romance, but “Great Expectations” is unique; it is an adaptation of a novel, and unlike his previous roles like “Before Sunrise,” he plays a tragic character here. Hawke’s chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t feel forced either, which shows another of his strengths. His star power is what lets him play opposite a variety of actors. Both this film and Greta Gerwig’s “Maggie’s Plan” are different types of films with different tones, characters, and actresses, but Hawke is great at finding the right groove with whoever he works with. It includes even his less successful films like “Taking Lives,” where he and Angelina Jolie make a very intriguing couple. Hawke has a lot of silent moments in the movie, but you can tell from his eyes that he has so much going on inside.
Good Kill (2014)
Hawke is not always a “showy” actor. He played some nasty characters in “The Phenom” and “Maudie,” so he got to chew on some scenes, but he’s usually silent; he doesn’t play to the camera. He is not there to get a baity scene and collect awards – he is there to serve the story. Hawke can still be big – just recently we saw him in “The Good Lord Bird” – but one of the attributes of his performances is how much nuance he can find in mostly silent characters.
Hawke again collaborated with one of our most underappreciated writer-directors, Andrew Niccol, who cast Hawke previously in “Gattaca” and “Lord of War,” both excellent films; we’ll talk about one of them in a moment. He plays an officer in the U.S. Air Force stationed in Las Vegas. In a suburban house, he lives with his wife and two children, a former F-16 Falcon pilot. As part of his current assignment, he flies armed MQ-9 Reaper drones in foreign airspace in support of the United States’ fight against terrorism.
He may be sitting in Las Vegas, but it doesn’t necessarily protect him from war traumas and depression. Good Kill tackles a rarely discussed subject – the psychology of a drone pilot – and raises questions about how different it is to be in a battle zone or to be in charge of a drone from anywhere else. Hawke has a great monologue in the middle of the film.
The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
Despite being mainly known for his work in American indies, Hawke’s talent is not overlooked by non-American directors. Previously, he worked with Hirokazu Kore-eda on “The Truth,” now he’s collaborating with Pawe* Pawlikowski, who’s gotten more recognition for “Cold War” and “Ida.”
Hawke’s “The Woman in the Fifth” may not be as strong, but it gives him another chance to demonstrate his versatility. There’s an air of mystery and unease in the film’s ambiance, and Hawke gives a nuanced, quiet performance that serves to tell the story once again. This is a role that showcases his arthouse sensibility. This is the story of a desperate man who may be afraid of something, who is very anxious, who may have secrets of his own, and who can also be very confused as much as we – the audience – are. His performance also features a blend of American-accented French. Hawke typically portrays men who are in pain, but who are also sensitive. Once again, he manages to make viewers sympathize with his characters.
Many movie buffs probably saw the title, expected a traditional biopic, and got bored or confused by what they saw. Since it is from director Michael Almereyda, many arthouse lovers probably did the same. It’s a very non-traditional film, and even if Hawke singing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” karaoke is fun, think twice before watching. Despite its merits, it’s not always as fun as you might think.
Hawke’s “Tesla” is another testament to his talent, but also an example of his unpredictable filmography. It’s true that Hawke’s films have largely gone unnoticed by the general public because they’re a bit too offbeat, but that’s what makes him so fascinating. While he doesn’t follow the rules, his choices don’t feel pretentious as he moves from genre to genre.
“Hamlet,” Almereyda’s ultra-modern retelling of the story, also had Hawke as its central character. With his portrayal of visionary but ill-fated inventor Nikola Tesla, Hawke once again impresses and gives an intelligent performance.