Monday, 19 March 2012

Scene Stealers: John Hawkes

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The last couple of years have been good to John Hawkes. He earned an Oscar nomination for his role in the gritty drama Winter’s Bone, and many of us would argue he deserved a second for his performance in last month’s release: Martha Marcy May Marlene. Like our previous Scene Stealer Elias Koteas, he’s a highly versatile actor who’s done great work in indies and blockbusters. We’d like to take a look at some selected highlights of his career.

Despite working solidly in film and TV for several years prior to the Tarantino/Rodriguez vampire fest, Hawkes made his first big impression here as the grocery store clerk who listens to Texas Ranger Earl McGraw’s tale of a dodgy breakfast and escaped cons until the lawman leaves. Then we find out that said escaped cons (George Clooney and Tarantino) have been there the whole time, and an argument as to whether Pete tipped Earl off or not ends explosively. It’s a brief but memorable appearance.

Hawkes spent several years popping up in guest appearances on TV shows. He’s got a blink-and-you’ll-miss it appearance in the Buffy season 2 episode I Only Have Eyes for You but has more screen time in season 1 Millennium episode The Judge, which finds evil Marshal Bell trying to bend his ex-con to his purpose only to underestimate him and fall foul of some swine. The X-Files used his softer side to good effect in season 6 episode Milagro in which he plays a Scully-obsessed writer whose fiction may be becoming reality. He also popped up in episodes of ER, Brimstone, Martial Law, and The Crow: Stairway to Heaven. Rough with the smooth.

After brief turns as crooks in Rush Hour and Blue Streak, Hawkes landed a role in Wolfgang Peterson’s better-than-it-should-be man vs. storm movie. Sharing the boat with the muscular ensemble of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, John C. Reilly, and William Fichtner, Hawkes added a bit of humanity to the bluster and the machismo. Plus his character got to romance Rusty Schwimmer.

James Mangold’s enjoyably silly take on 12 Little Indians is totally daffy but boasted a surprisingly solid cast, including John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John C. McGinley, and Alfred Molina. Hawkes plays Larry, the owner of the motel in which the band of strangers take shelter during a terrible storm (Hawkes has no luck with weather, apparently). When people start dying, suspicion inevitably falls on the shifty bloke with facial hair who tells Peet’s escort that he doesn’t “like looking at trash” and is uncomfortable “with guard duty, per se”. Larry does indeed have his secrets, but is he the killer?

For many, it was David Milch’s epic HBO western TV series that put Hawkes on the map. Playing the business partner/best friend to Timothy Olyphant’s volcanically-tempered lawman Seth Bullock, Hawkes was one of the few figures of quiet decency in the blood-soaked moral grey zone that was Deadwood, and also had an enjoyably acidic but touching relationship with Paula Malcomson’s foul-mouthed prostitute Trixie. Despite being one of the victims of the series’ increasing interest in the back-door politics and power struggles rather than the everyday folk, Hawkes put in consistently excellent work over Deadwood’s tragically brief three season running span.

Miranda July has emerged as a love-her-or-hate-her figure but her debut film as a writer/director/star was something of an indie sensation upon its release in 2005. It’s a multi-threaded character study in which Hawkes provides the grounded heart of the film as the recently divorced father of two who is “prepared for amazing things to happen!” He also gets two of the film’s most memorable scenes: the opening sequence in which he lights his hand on fire to get his sons’ attention, and the charmingly flirtatious walk down the street during which he discusses the life of a relationship with July’s forward performance artist that ends with him being completely unnerved by her.

Goran Dukic’s adaptation of Etgar Keret’s short story Kneller’s Happy Campers was dismissed by some as being overly quirky but it’s a touching, offbeat love story set in a purgatory for people who’ve committed suicide. Hawkes appears as the friend of Tom Waits’ spiritual mentor Kneller, who arrives to breathlessly inform the community that Waits’ dog has been stolen by Will Arnett’s self-proclaimed Messiah. Yann is easily panicked, prone to getting lost, and capable of levitation. It’s an underrated film that we can recommend whole-heartedly.

From indies to mainstream. Hawkes appeared briefly in Michael Mann’s Miami Vice update as a panicking informant and stood behind Russell Crowe a lot as one of the detectives in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Both films were underwhelming, and both underused Hawkes.

Hawkes returned to HBO to play Danny McBride’s responsible older brother in the gloriously foul-mouthed Eastbound and Down. He may not have had much to do, but the two actors work well together as the sibling rivalry and resentment gives way to mutual respect and brotherly love. Needless to say, in the world of Eastbound and Down, such things do not last.

The film that brought Hawkes the recognition he deserves. He received an Oscar nomination for his role as Teardrop, Jennifer Lawrence’s uncle with ties to meth dealers and a fearsome reputation. The viewer spends much of the film wondering when Teardrop will arrive, and whether he’ll help or hurt when he finally does. It’s a superb portrayal of an emotionally damaged man who is forced into action by some residual feeling of goodness.

There’s not much goodness to be found in Hawkes’ latest. He plays Patrick, the leader of the commune that Elizabeth Olsen’s fragile Martha arrives at. He’s understanding, softly-spoken, tender, and seductive. But once that mask drops we see the dangerous, manipulative predator underneath. It’s a character that could easily be taken over the top but he’s always horrifyingly plausible thanks to Hawkes.

Hawkes hasn’t always had it easy. We neglected to comment on his performances in classics such as I Still Know What You Did Last Summer or Congo. With roles in Vera Farmiga’s directorial debut and Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic on the way, he’s only going to get more attention.

Next Scene Stealer: Patricia Clarkson


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