Mark it: 2018 will go down as the year we achieved peak Ethan Hawke. Back in May, the always underrated actor delivered his strongest performance in years as a spiritually tortured priest in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. And this week, he delivers again. Twice, in fact. First, as an exhausted and reclusive cult rock star in front of the camera in the Sundance standout Juliet, Naked. Then, behind the camera as the director and co-writer of Blaze — a doom-soaked and dreamily impressionistic biopic of the obscure country musician Blaze Foley. After 32 years in the movie business, he’s on one of the most charmed and well-deserved rolls of his career.
If Foley’s name doesn’t ring any bells, you’re not alone. The Austin-based singer-songwriter found little commercial success in his too-short lifetime. Foley’s deeply personal, heart-shattering ballads were sung by more famous artists such as Townes Van Zandt, but Foley’s notoriety (what little there was of it) would come after his death in 1989, when he was stabbed during an argument while standing up for a friend.
Hawke seems to have a deep soft spot for the marginal dreamers and overlooked geniuses – the artists toiling in the shadows for art’s sake. Maybe because on some small level that impulse hits close to home. Blaze isn’t a flashy movie, which seems about right since Hawke’s closest mentors and collaborators (Richard Linklater, for example) aren’t known for their look-at-me personalities. Like the real-life Foley, they’re storytellers and yarn spinners first and foremost, fame and fortune be damned.
As a director (this is his fourth feature), Hawke has an unerring eye for casting. He matches the right actors with the right parts, which is harder than it sounds. And he’s done a real service to Foley, who’s played in the film by singer-songwriter Ben Dickey – a burly, gentle bear of a man I’d never seen or heard of before. Dickey looks like a big, shaggy dog with a wounded paw who’s been left out in the rain overnight. And he’s a real revelation.
Blaze toggles back and forth in time, showing us Foley’s early, semi-idyllic romance with a young actress named Sybil (Alia Shawkat) and his later attempt at sharing his songwriting gifts with an uninterested public. Hunched behind the a microphone in front of sparse dive-bar crowds, he introduces his introspective, confessional songs with gruff arias of doggerel philosophy. Stardom wasn’t what he was after. He was more interested in opening his emotional veins to reveal something more true.
Foley’s story isn’t exactly a pleasant one. He could be difficult. There were drugs and dust-ups and self-destructive outbursts. He seemed constitutionally incapable of not blowing any big break that came in his radius. But Hawke wants to show us the warts-and-all side of an unsung genius. After turning his back on Sybil (he’s a ramblin’ man who needs to ramble), the closest thing he has to a confidant is the equally downward-spiralling Van Zandt (well-played by musician Charlie Sexton). And it’s Van Zandt and another friend (Josh Hamilton) who tell Foley’s story after his death to a radio interviewer, futilely trying to separate fact from fiction. If that framing device feels a little too familiar, well, it mostly works. And it’s one of the few clichés Hawke leans on in this otherwise original film. Like Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s 1976 biopic Bound for Glory, Foley was an outlaw of integrity and a true original. And if Blaze gets even one moviegoer to discover the legacy that Foley left behind, then Hawke will have honored his subject and his muse beautifully. B+