Ethan Hawke never really catches mainstream attention. He’ll be the first to admit that he’s not that good when it comes to picking more commercially appealing movies; he’s even a little too harsh to them sometimes. He called “Taking Lives” a terrible movie, and while it was no masterpiece, it’s fine enough for what it is. However, when it comes to independent movies, Hawke is your ultimate superstar and very versatile as well. His most recent performance on the TV series “The Good Lord Bird” brought him all kinds of accolades and praises, but Hawke has been amazing in cinema for decades.
From Richard Linklater films to genre cinema, he has achieved a lot of success. He’s a playwright, film and stage director, actor in all mediums, writer, and he even sings sometimes. He’s a passionate artist who is very committed to his craft, which is why it’s always exciting to follow his filmography. One who doesn’t follow him enough might be surprised to see how truly prolific he has been over the years and how many different roles he’s tackled. This list will try to highlight some of his definitive roles.
15. Reality Bites (1994)
His first true breakthrough role as an actor. He was in “Dead Poets Society” before and even Dante’s “Explorers” before that, but those films didn’t make him a hot name in town. He had some fine roles in “A Midnight Clear,” “Alive” and “White Fang” – all films worth watching, even if they didn’t make this list.
Then suddenly “Reality Bites” came up. Hawke credits Winona Ryder for the attention film got and thanks her for helping to become a bigger name. Ben Stiller’s filmography is unpredictable, if that’s the right word, and his feature film debut seemingly meant a lot to its audiences back then even if some of the plot elements can feel outdated or formulaic. He does a great job as a director to keep the pacing fast and energetic, and one can’t deny the movie’s charm.
Hawke is part of the central love triangle of the film; Ryder must either choose him or Stiller’s character. Hawke’s character may not be appealing to everybody, but with his goatee, rarely washed hair, and the way he talks, he was creating a definitive character. It’s also something of a showcase for his musical talent. Hawke’s character is more of a searcher, a little more philosophical, in an intentionally pretentious way, but the performance made him almost a star; he had the comic sensibilities, he was good with dialogues, he was nuanced and he was charismatic. So thanks to “Reality Bites,” Ethan Hawke received more and more opportunities.
14. Predestination (2014)
Hawke is a champion of genre cinema. The original “Purge” movie; the harshly and undeservedly criticized “Regression”; the kind of underrated John Carpenter remake “Assault on Precinct 13”; or his previous collaboration with the directors of this film, the vampire film “Daybreakers” had all one common element: Ethan Hawke’s impressive central performance. Hawke is not a big star, but he’s a known name and his presence helps those rather smaller thrillers, horrors, or science fiction films to get seen or at least, heard by more people.
“Predestination” made somewhat of a splash on the internet when it was released, even if it was not a big box office success. It had an intriguing plot, a surprising twist, an affected storyline, some funny moments, and many more you can expect from an entertaining science fiction film. Hawke plays a temporal agent with one last mission to fulfill before he retires and he goes back to the 1970s, working as a bartender. But who is he really? And what is he up to? Admittedly, Sarah Snook has a better part in the movie, but Hawke understands the genre so well that he serves the story and the atmosphere amazingly. He knows how to not give away much about his character, but still manages to keep him interesting and engaging. “Predestination” is a good example of how Hawke has the ability to pick interesting genre films and how well he knows the sensibilities of those films.
13. Dead Poets Society (1989)
While it was “Reality Bites” that opened bigger doors for him, Hawke got his first strong role in “Dead Poets Society.” Previously, he had a decent role in “Explorers” but this one is something else. I mean, he’s the first one to step up to the desk and say “Oh Captain! My Captain!” – how iconic can you get?
The classic movie follows an unorthodox teacher who took up his new post at a conservative, strict college in New England in the fall of 1959, and guides the students in his class toward self-knowledge and the realization of their own identity. Hawke’s performance as a shy student named Todd, who tries to find a way to express himself, got acclaim; some critics called his performance “haunting” and indeed it was. In every mannerism of his, you could see that he’s a young actor who has a lot to show in the future.
It was also a life-changing experience for him for some other reason: working with the late Robin Williams. “He gave me the first taste of what acting could be. When it goes really well, you disappear and you’re in service of a larger story,” Hawke said. “I did a scene with Robin, he asked me to sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world. It was an amazing experience because the deeper into that scene I got, by the time the day was over I couldn’t remember what had happened.” While they never worked together again, the experience remained so dear to Hawke’s heart.
12. Great Expectations (1998)
“It’s my heart, and it’s broken.” No matter what you think of the film and Alfonso Cuaron’s treatment of the Dickens classic in this modern adaptation, one has to admit that Hawke gives a haunting performance here. Cuaron says, “I think it’s a complete failed film,” while his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki agreed that it was “the least satisfying of our movies.” It surely is a film that is a bit messy, but there are a lot of elements to be admired: some of the cinematography is truly gorgeous, especially the color use; a very impressive soundtrack; and great performances, including Hawke.
Romance is not a genre that is strange to Hawke but “Great Expectations” is something else; it’s an adaptation of a novel and unlike his previous roles like in “Before Sunrise,” the character he portrays here is tragic. His chemistry with Gwyneth Paltrow also doesn’t feel forced, which shows another one of Hawke’s strengths. He knows how to play opposite each actress. You can say this one and “Maggie’s Plan” with Greta Gerwig are different kinds of films, with different tones, characters and actresses, but Hawke is great at finding the right rhythms with whomever he works with. That includes even his less successful films like “Taking Lives,” where he and Angelina Jolie make a very intriguing couple together. Hawke has a lot of silent moments in the film, but you can see from his expressive eyes that there’s so much going on inside his character.
11. Good Kill (2014)
Hawke is not necessarily a “showy” actor. He played some nasty characters in “The Phenom” and “Maudie,” which gave him some scenes to chew on, but usually he’s silent; he doesn’t play to the camera. He’s not there to get a baity scene and collect awards – he’s there to serve the story. It’s not that he can’t get big – just recently we saw he can be showy in “The Good Lord Bird” – but one of the trademarks of Hawke’s performances is how much nuance he can find in mostly silent characters.
Delivering a subtle work, Hawke collaborated again with one of the most underappreciated writer-directors of our time – Andrew Niccol, who cast Hawke previously in “Gattaca” and “Lord of War,” both wonderful works and we’ll get back to one of them. In “Good Kill,” he plays an officer with the U.S. Air Force stationed near Las Vegas. He is a former F-16 Falcon pilot, married with two children who live with him in a suburban house. His current assignment involves flying armed MQ-9 Reaper drones in foreign air space in support of the U.S. War on Terror.
Sitting in Las Vegas doesn’t necessarily save him from war traumas and depression, though. “Good Kill” manages to shine a light on a rarely explored subject – the psychology of a drone pilot – and raises questions about how different it is to be in the battle zone or lead a drone from somewhere else. Hawke is brilliant and has a wonderful monologue in the middle of the film.
10. The Woman in the Fifth (2011)
Hawke is mostly celebrated for his work in American indies, but it’s not like his talent is overlooked by non-American auteurs. Just recently he collaborated with Hirokazu Kore-eda on “The Truth.” Here he works with Paweł Pawlikowski, who’s gotten more name recognition since then for “Cold War” and “Ida.”
His “The Woman in the Fifth” is not as strong, but it gives a chance for Hawke to showcase his versatility once again. There’s a certain aura of mystery and unease in the film’s atmosphere, and Hawke gives a nuanced, quiet performance that serves to tell the story once again. It’s a role that shows his arthouse sensibilities. We have a desperate man here who’s maybe afraid of something, who is very anxious and may have his secrets of his own, and who can be very confused himself as much as we – the audience – are. Speaking a blend of American-accented French is another thing worth noting about his performance. Hawke tends to portray men in pain, but who are also sensitive. Here once again he finds ways for viewers to sympathize with his characters.
9. Tesla (2020)
Many movie buffs probably saw the title, expected a traditional biopic, and got bored or confused by what they see here. To be fair, many arthouse lovers probably also did the same since it’s from director Michael Almereyda. It’s a very non-traditional kind of film and even if hearing Hawke sing “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” karaoke is fun, think twice. It’s great but not necessarily fun in the way most would think.
“Tesla” is another testament to Hawke’s talent, but also a great example of his unpredictable filmography. Some of Hawke’s films went absolutely unnoticed by the general audiences because they’re little too offbeat, but that’s what makes him an exciting performer. He doesn’t play by the rules, but his choices never feel pretentious as he goes from genre to genre. Almereyda did the same thing with “Hamlet,” his ultra-modern take on the story with another strong central performance from Hawke. Hawke once again impresses with his portrayal of visionary but ill-fated inventor Nikola Tesla and gives an intelligent performance.