There’s a moment in Sinister when Ethan Hawke peers into an attic and sees a gaggle of ghost children watching a Super 8 movie of Bughuul, a Babylonian pagan god. The edges of Hawke’s eyebrows arc up toward a crevice of distress that runs down his forehead. His eyes are wide, almost sad, as fear seems to push his mind loose from its moorings with the realization that, yes, there really is a spectral film club in his attic. Then Bughuul goes “Boo!” and Hawke drops to the floor below, crawling and cowering backwards against a wall, panic heaving his body against it. A projector and box of films shakes loose and drops from above, and he lets out a scream—despondent, raw, a little pathetic—like his terror is being spinal tapped out of him. It’s around then that I think, “This is why Ethan Hawke is our best genre star right now.” Who else dedicates themselves this much to ensure that we temporarily believe in the unbelievable?
Once upon a time, it would have unbelievable to imagine Ethan Hawke, starring in the new Regression, becoming a mainstay of low-key horror, science-fiction, and action movies like Sinister, Daybreakers, The Purge, Predestination, and Getaway. Much of his onscreen career gravitated toward serious fare in which he’d play moody young Gen-Xers with long unwashed hair. Off screen, his love of theater, fiction-writing, and intellectualism led him to be perceived—fairly or not—as somewhat pretentious. That combination made it easy to suspect that the reason Hawke never made genre movies—Gattaca aside—was maybe because he considered it cinematic slumming. Little did we know.
“I’ve always wanted to flirt with genres,” Hawke recently explained. Flirt he did with dirty cop drama Training Day in 2001, before graduating not so much to first kiss but full consummation with 2009’s Daybreakers, a deep-end-of-the-genre-pool film about a future where vampires rule the word; the film blended elements of post-apocalypse, horror, sci-fi dystopia, and more. That consummation begat commitment, and the last few years have seen Hawke star in a healthy lineup of unadulterated genre flicks: the aforementioned ghost story about soul-eating Babylonian deities; a horror movie about a near-future totalitarian society that legalizes crime for a murderous 12-hour stretch every year; a science-fiction movie about secret time traveler agents and casual loops; and a Speed rip-off action movie about an ex-race car driver subjected to the “you can’t stop driving” whims of a madman. Small-scale genre films have become such a staple of Hawke’s output that it’s hard to tell if they’re the movies being peppered between loftier pursuits like Boyhood and Before Midnight or the other way around.
What’s been most surprising about Hawke’s career turn isn’t just the turn itself, but that genre fits him about as snugly as that fatherly gray cardigan does in Sinister. Those expressive worming eyebrows, that divot in his forehead that pools worry, the boyish restlessness and mild over-seriousness that tinges his performances? All lend themselves naturally to movies that typically belabor their protagonist with life and (mostly) death.
It helps too that there’s no B-movie snobbery in Hawke’s performance—no whiff of ink drying on mortgage checks. When he dutifully explains the rules of time travel, recoils from sunlight as a vampire, wails at masked home invaders threatening his family, or skitters across that hallway floor in Sinister, there’s no scene-chewing, winking, or distance. Compare the marital blow-up between Ellison and his wife in Sinister to Jesse and Celine’s climactic one in Before Midnight, and a distinction between the dedication he gives each performance is hard to see. It seems that to Hawke, genre is a worthy and serious affair.
But it’s not just performance and attitude that define the actor’s greatness as a B-movie star. What truly distinguishes him is what he does for the B-movies he’s in as a whole: He makes them work, when often they shouldn’t. One of the immense appeals of genre films are their high-concept premises—those unique (and a little insane) scenarios and what-ifs the movies are built around. Said premises are often more the stars of these films than the actors in them. I don’t watch Reign Of Fire, Dog Soldiers, or It Follows for their casts. I watch them to see apocalyptic dragons, werewolves fighting marines, and sexually transmitted ghosts. I watch them with the enthusiastic and naïve hope that their nutty premises will be half-competently brought to life on screen. That’s not an easy task. Cinema’s graveyards are full of movies with cool ideas that hit theaters D.O.A. While high concepts may be the stars of genre, they depend on actors for a paradoxical task. Performers need to take a back seat to the concept, but dedicate all their energy and talent to ensuring it works. Direction and special effects can visually realize worlds, but to get an audience to buy them, you need an actor like Hawke to sell it.
Watching his genre work, I’m continually reminded of something he once said about Training Day: “I thought if I did my job right, Denzel [Washington] would get an Oscar.” For Hawke, his role in Training Day wasn’t about his own glory, but ensuring the success of something beyond him. The actor does for genre premises what he did for Washington: He dedicates himself to being the moving part that allows the larger machinery to run.
Take that afore mentioned moment in Sinister. It’s not just that Hawke is working to convince us that he’s terrified. He’s working to convince us that this situation, world, and premise is terrifying. In doing so, he makes it that much easier to temporarily buy into the idea that ghost kids are hanging out in attics with an ancient demonic Daddy Warbucks. Hawke is perpetually propping up the greater needs of genre premises in that way.
To stay with Sinister, Hawke spends a fair amount of time watching the gruesome home movies Bughuul has left him. Passively sitting there and watching something isn’t exactly a glamorous task for an actor. But he never phones it in. He props up those close-ups of him watching with authentic reactions (genre is nothing if not dependent on reactions), selling those home movies—one of the main conceptual draws of Sinister—with his horrified reactions. This, in turn, enables our own. He does his job, so Sinister can accomplish its job.
Hawke does something similar in Predestination. He spends most of the first half of the film sitting in a booth in a bar, listening to Sarah Snook’s character literally recount her life story in flashbacks. It’s another thankless task for Hawke, one that takes up 45 minutes of the movie. But there he is, intently hunched forward, snorting in agreement or laughter, scratching his head or throwing his hands around to nudge the narrative along. Now, in the moment, he does all this to sell us on the conversation that’s happening, but a twist later reveals that the life story has direct bearing on Hawke’s character (Sinister does the same with those home movies), and he’s been willingly playing the long game, supporting the movie’s greater goals.
Hawke does that again and again—whether it’s on the scale of letting a vampire combust goopy blood all over his face in Daybreakers or yelling “Jesus! Get out of the way!” as he careens through Getaway, or through larger character moments (fear for a wife, writerly insecurity) where his dramatic chops bring a little more heft to what would otherwise be weightless characters. It isn’t about selling these movies in piecemeal, but in bulk. He’s working hard to sell every moment. Hell, something like Daybreakers shouldn’t work. A movie that has humanoid and monster vampires, the looming extinction of the human race, an environmental allegory, exploding bodies and blood geysers, retro-futurism, and more has no right working. But there’s Hawke, anchoring it moment to moment with melancholy and solemnity, selling this mashup world.
There’s a moment in Predestination when Hawke’s time travel agent is recording instructions for his replacement. “This is a job, remember that,” he says. “It’s unlike any other, but you still have tasks. Some days those tasks are easier than others, but it’s imperative you succeed.” A twist eventually reveals Hawke’s character is actually talking to a young version of himself (time travel, don’t ask), and in that way it’s almost as if Hawke the actor is giving himself a pep talk. Or, maybe more like making a promise to him and us: Even though genre may be unlike any of his other jobs, and its required tasks may be easier, he’ll always pursue the imperative success of a B-film’s overall goal. Hawke has yet to break that promise.