5. Gattaca (1997)
Set in the “not-too-distant future, “Gattaca” envisions a society driven by eugenics (conceiving “improved” children with the use of genetic manipulation), and where DNA has a crucial role in determining social class. Ethan Hawke plays the lead, Vincent Freeman, whose conception wasn’t a part of the eugenics program. He struggles with genetic discrimination, bad eyesight and heart problems which prevent him from realizing his dream of traveling into space.
Vincent breaks the rules by buying off paraplegic ex-swimmer Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), who has the perfect DNA to put the main character on a collision course with his own brother (Loren Dean) and his squad of detectives.
The sci-fi thriller, visually exciting with a notably big budget, is provocative and smart when making its audience ponder about society’s issues after Dolly the sheep made headlines in 1996 as the first cloned mammal. Hawke is well-suited for the role, restless and bitter but always determined to accomplish his mission.
4. Tape (2001)
Adapted from a play by Stephen Belber, is set entirely in a motel room in Lansing, Michigan, its three characters’ (two male buddies and a woman they once loved) hometown. They come together to play out the unresolved drama that happened at the end of their high school days.
At the beginning of the story, Hawke’s character, Vince, is alone in his motel room, drinking beer, smoking dope and doing push-ups as he waits for his old high school friend Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) to show up.
On a clear emotional edge, Vince is actually preparing to ambush Johnny, an aspiring filmmaker in town for the premiere of his debut movie. Vince has traveled from California, where he works as a volunteer firefighter and makes money by selling drugs to the fire chief, and initially appears to be there to support his old pal. Gradually, Vince shows his resentment towards what he sees as Johnny having stolen his girlfriend Amy (Uma Thurman) years before – then resulting in rape accusations.
The film unravels in an intense psychological exchange of words, and the main character is jealousy. Linklater once again bends cinematic limits with great success, using the room’s mirrors to literally reflect the theme of the story. Making for an extremely compelling view, the threesome of actors give acute performances but, in the end, Hawke’s acting mastery in more physical and emotionally loud scenes define the film’s growing tension.
3. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
In a late-period triumph, director Sidney Lumet made a difficult-to-watch crime melodrama and granted Hawke an undeniable opportunity to deliver some of his best work. Sharing screen time with him was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who played his brother Andy, a clean and well-dressed payroll executive who is also a drug addict in desperate need of cash. Hawke plays Hank, who has his own reasons for needing money.
It starts with Andy’s suggestion of robbing a jewelry store, with no guns and no intention of hurting anyone. When it all goes wrong, the film explodes into its devastingly intense self. It takes an amazing ensemble cast, which also includes Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei and Michael Shannon, to truly make this a wrenching tale full of genuine suspense. Both Hawke and Hoffman disappear in their roles and give us the precious feeling that they’re actually their characters.
2. Boyhood (2014)
This lifetime achievement by writer and director Richard Linklater has surfaced long after its first production efforts. Shot over a course of 12 years, using the same main characters and cast the whole time, the film follows Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, at first only 7 years old) from kid to college freshman, along his family: his slightly older sister Samantha, and his divorced parents Olivia and Mason Snr. (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke).
The parents are both struggling financially, and Olivia raises her kids as a single mom while Mason Snr. clings to his bohemianism and his ambition to make it as a musician.
Although the story obviously focuses on Mason Jr., plenty of scenes serve to show how his family’s incidents transformed him over the years – his mother’s failed marriages, his sister’s teenage angst, and his dad’s lifestyle.
Hawke’s character, who at first appears youthful and goofy, slowly develops and comes to terms with his responsabilities. He’s never really judged for his choices, being an honestly loving father who, himself, is still struggling with adulthood and never holds back in his offbeat wisdom. We see him, just like the rest of the main cast, become greyer — and to see that at once instead of the separately timed films of the “Before” trilogy really underlines Hawke’s devotion to the job.
1. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset & Before Midnight (1995, 2004, 2013)
Playing the same role for a large amount of years might seem less ordinary now after Boyhood’s 12-year span but, in this trilogy, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy played Jesse and Celine for 18. Linklater and Hawke have been particularly connected in other works, yet this remains the most worthy of all.
It’s rare enough when a trilogy’s last film is as good – if not better – than the previous two, but even rarer when the genre is romance and story is mostly a talk fest.
Celine and Jesse, a french woman and an american man, who had their first brief encounter on a train to Vienna in “Before Sunrise” (1995), meet again in Paris when Celine turns up at a bookshop to find Jesse reading from his first novel – which he based on her – in “Before Sunset” (2004).
Similarly to the first film, the second left their relationship in a complicated decision for Jesse to make. In “Before Midnight” (2013), a lot more questions are made, but we also get more answers than ever. Now in their forties, they’re bound to have a significant amount of existential crisis and more confined to their doubts.
Having both written the last film this is, beside a huge talking exercise, the deepest and most immersive experience they’ve done. In all accounts, as one watches their relationship grow and struggle through the years, Hawke and Delpy become their characters, their actions, their decisions, their words.