Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Character: John Hawkes

Welcome back to In Character, a weekly column dedicated to drawing attention to the actors many know but cannot name.  Here’s to giving credit to the character actors who deserve more of it.

For most people, the name John Hawkes does nothing for them.  Tell them that he’s the fast-talking, weird-looking liquor store owner that opens From Dusk Till Dawn, and you (hopefully) have them hooked.  And that’s pretty much the way it’s been for Hawkes: the amusing, fast-talking, weird-looking sidekick to big name stars.  But lately, things have changed. 

I credit HBO’s Deadwood for turning Hawkes’ career around.  Since that time, he’s gone from playing cracker-jack wiseasses to forces to be reckoned with in heavy-handed independent films.  Appropriately nominated for his first Oscar last year, Hawkes could very well find himself a seat at this year’s big show.  Potential nomination or not, given his new dramatic streak, I’d see Hawkes in just about anything (and here’s why you should, too).

Five Essential Roles
From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)
Pete Bottoms

From Dusk Till Dawn begins like no other horror/sci-fi film of recent memory; that is, having nothing to do with genre plot, but everything to do with character development.

After walking into a convenience store and helping himself to a beer, Texas Ranger Earl McGraw walks up to the counter, and engages store owner Pete Bottoms in a conversation of seemingly little importance.  The talk, they curse, the chew, they drink; all done in a routine, simplistic manner.  Once McGraw walks to the back to relieve himself, the movie seriously takes off.

Thieves George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino bum rush the counter, female hostages in hand, and demand that Bottoms get the Ranger to leave.  It’s a startling reveal: the criminals, unbeknownst to us, have been in the store the whole time.  Because Bottoms knew the criminals were there, it makes his coolnees under pressure when talking to the Ranger that much more engaging.

This being a Tarantino script, things get awfully violent awfully quick, adding another humorous element to Hawkes’ performance.  “I think I oughta get a fuckin’ Academy Award for how natural I'm acting!” Hawkes blurts out.  Yes. Indeed.  You should.

I couldn't find a picture of Hawkes as Pete Bottoms, so please, do appease your long goddamn miserable shitass fuckin' day with one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen on film:

Identity (2003)
James Mangold’s psychological thriller is filled with a handful of characters that just barely make it out of cookie-cutter status.  (The stern cop, the good Samaritan, the whore, the bitch, the quiet kid, the shy husband, the sick wife, and so on.) Best among them (well, other than Jake Busey’s loony goon) is John Hawkes’ sleazy yet affable motel manager, Larry.

In one way or another, every character in Identity is not who they say they are.  Some have exciting stories of how they managed to get stuck at the horrific motel, while other stories, like Larry’s, are so far out there, that they’re almost laughable.  And here is Hawkes’ genius on full display: when Larry is finally forced to tell the truth about who he is and where he’s from, Hawkes’ dives into a monologue of unbelievable pity and fear. 

If he slips up or misspeaks just one word, the other occupants of the motel could very well have his head.  “[The story] is crazy enough that it just might be true,” Amanda Peet says.  A subtle line that helps justify Larry’s story, if Hawkes’ performance hasn’t done that already.

Deadwood (2004-2006)
Sol Star
Flashier and more popular performances are to come, but HBO’s brilliant, short lived Deadwood inarguably marks the turning point in Hawkes’ career.  Up until then, Hawkes had mostly been the funny, awkward everyman.  A few lines here, a stolen scene there; good stuff, but not exactly substantive.

As Sol, the kind, physically diminutive business partner to Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock, Hawkes was quiet yet respected, nonchalant yet wildly intelligent.  Constantly made fun of for being the only Jew in town, Sol never bucked up when tormented by town badass Al Swearengen, ultimately earning respect for always keeping a cool head.

While I remember Hawkes in Deadwood for many reasons, none is more noteworthy than Sol’s relationship with Trixie (Paula Malcomson), Deadwood’s best, most vicious whore.  Sol shows her respect and compassion, and in return, Trixie shows him her heart.  It’s a tender, unique romance in a series filled with nearly none of them.

Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
I hadn’t the slightest interest in seeing performance artist Miranda July’s first feature film Me and You and Everyone We Know.  I put it off for years.  I knew the basics of its plot, structure and overall feel, but it wasn’t until this past summer that I finally decided to watch it.  The reason I ultimately caved and the reason I enjoyed the film as much as I did are one in the same: John Hawkes.

I have respect for the lengths July had to go through to get her handmade film to the screen.  I have bigger respect, however, for her having faith in Hawkes as a leading man.

Hawkes plays Richard, a timid shoe salesmen who, after getting separated, raises his two boys by himself in a crummy apartment. After a brief while, a subtle, awkward romance stews between Richard and July’s Christine that can only be described as distinctively delightful. They talk how people talk; with odd curiosity and matter-of-fact frankness.  There’s a particular scene in which July equates walking on a sidewalk to walking through life.  It’s a strange, unique theory, one that Richard is initially puzzled by, but ultimately accepts amusingly.

There are many reasons Roger Ebert called this the fifth best film of the 2000s.  Chief among them is the romance Richard and Christine share.  It’s absolutely whimsical.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
Riding high off his Oscar-nominated turn for playing an insatiable son of a bitch last year (see below), Hawkes plays the part of cult leader Patrick in MMMM to utter perfection.

Watching how Hawkes portrays Patrick, one can only be reminded of the seminal cult leader in American history.  The Charles Manson I became familiar with in “Helter Skelter” is incarnated flawlessly here.  Mind you, Hawkes isn’t doing an impersonation, he makes Patrick his own, to terrifying results.

Initially kind and warm, we soon learn that Patrick is a masochistic demon of a human being, living only to help restore and control the notion that men are the master sex.  The fear that Hawkes subtly establishes isn’t done with threats and screaming matches, it’s done with the slight shift of where a pistol is aimed, or the gentle refusal to leave a home that isn’t his.  As Patrick, Hawkes never once speaks above his natural cadence.  He’s cool, calm, and wholly terrifying.  It’d be a real shame to not see this performance capped with serious awards attention.

The Best of the Best
Winter’s Bone (2010)
In each segment of In Character, I’ve made it a point to highlight how part of being a great character actor is the fact that everyone knows your face.  (The adverse to that, of course, is that no one knows your name.) Even commenters have said how they recognize and love the actor’s work, even if they’ve never really known who that actor is.

John Hawkes’ performance in Winter’s Bone is the antitheses of that theory.  When I saw the film, I had no idea Hawkes was in it, and when he came on screen as the greasy, unshaven, ferocious Teardrop, I had no idea who I was watching.  It wasn’t until several scenes later that I realized who it was, and how ballsy a thing Hawkes was doing.

Character actors are known for their face, and to make yourself nearly unrecognizable is not only tremendously risky, but, if played right, can be revelatory.  Every time Hawkes is on screen, there is a palpable, immediate sense of fear that weighs over the film.  You hear other characters in Winter’s Bone discuss in great lengths how much of an unstable nut Teardrop is, and Hawkes certainly doesn’t dissuade the hype.

In my original review of the film, I said Hawkes was a force of nature; one that instills dread from the onset and never lets up.  I also argued that it would be a sin for his performance to not be remembered come awards season.  And although he didn’t stand a chance against Christian Bale in The Fighter, Hawkes’ nomination was better-late-than-never justification to a career that I’m sure will afford him many more seats at Oscar shows.

Other Notable Roles
Hawkes in Higher Ground
The Perfect Storm (2000)
Hardball (2001)
Miami Vice (2006)
American Gangster (2007)
Eastbound & Down (2009-2010)
Contagion (2011)
Higher Ground (2011)

Previous installments of In Character include:


  1. I've seen him in quite a few films, but I never really noticed him until I saw ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW. I fucking love that film. I love it sooooo much. It's a masterful movie, one of the best indie movies ever made, and Hawkes is so much of what I like about it. He plays his character perfectly. He is certainly a great, great actor.

  2. You and everyone we know sounds great- I'll put on my To See List!

    He was great in MMMM and I loved the singing part!

  3. M&Y&EWK really is quite incredible. I wasn't all that jazzed about it after one viewing, but I've since watched it a couple of times and love it. Probably not as much as you, Tyler haha. But Aziza, definitely see it.

    Also, that singing scene freaked. me. out. Which speaks highly of his performance.

  4. With me you and Everyone We Know on Netflix Instant now - I can't wait to see it.

    Truly behind on the works of Mr. Hawkes - though he's been in the few things I've seen him in: Contagion and Winter's Bone.

  5. I totally forgot that he was in Identity!

    One good one you missed out: Small Town, Saturday Night.

  6. I'm a BIG fan of Hawkes. I remember him back in the Perfect Storm days. Good call on his role in Identity - an average film, but he still created a memorable character. He just has this brilliant screen presence - and none more so than in his recent work (in Winter's Bone he was my selection for the Best Supporting Oscar, and I think he deserves credit again for MMMM). I need to see Deadwood - only watched the first 6/7 episodes back when it first started.

  7. @ Sam, M&Y&EWK is quirky, but damn fine. Definitely see MMMM when it comes your way

    @Colin, I've never even heard of that! Gonna have to check it out.

    @Andy, Hawkes was, for me, a very close second for the Oscar. Deadwood is a GREAT show, very evolving. Hawkes is one of many great people in it

    Thanks for the comments everyone!

  8. This is a terrific post. I have really enjoyed John Hawkes' work lately, especially in Winter's Bone and Martha Marcy May Marlene. I totally forgot he was in From Dusk Till Dawn -- what a great scene!

  9. Thanks so much! Seriously, how good is that scene? Michael Parks and Hawkes just kill it. I could easily watch the two of them shoot the shit for 90 minutes.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  10. Oh, I just love Hawkes, he is such an amazing actor. Deadwood is one of my favorite series, I adore the character of Sol. Hawkes has this intensity about him that makes him incredibly memorable - most of these movies I've seen only once, but he is just stuck in my memory.

    Wonderful blog, btw!

  11. thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Seriously, how badass was DEADWOOD? Bummed that it ended so untimely.

  12. Replies
    1. Wrote this a year before The Sessions came out.