Before Midnight may be the greatest film ever made about impermanence — a fitting theme for a work that also reestablishes the A-list credentials of the mutable Ethan Hawke. Much like his character in Richard Linklater’s romantic drama series — which, in its third iteration, finds Hawke’s Jesse and paramour Celine (Julie Delpy) struggling with fortydom while on vacation with their kids in Greece — Hawke has finally, definitively distanced himself from the youthful persona that first defined him.
That hasn’t been an easy transition, given how forcefully he’s commanded the spotlight over nearly 30 years as a precocious child (Explorers), then a sweet, soulful preppy (Dead Poet’s Society), and a goateed Gen-X slacker heartthrob (Reality Bites), with the last career phase culminating with his apt casting as that broodiest of handsome princes, Hamlet. Yet even with that appropriately callow turn in Michael Winterbottom’s modernized adaptation, Hawke remained stuck in the mud, incapable of transcending an image predicated on a dogged, and somewhat entitled, juvenile refusal to accept adulthood.
Even in the crucible of time shared with Denzel Washington’s psycho-cop in Training Day, Hawke was the boy struggling to become a man. That process was mirrored by Hawke’s own career, which in the aughts saw him striving to reclassify himself as a tougher, nuanced grown-up, via grittier turns in genre pictures like Assault on Precinct 13 and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead that took greater advantage of his gift for vacillating between jittery fretfulness and cocksure calm.
Of course, this is the dilemma of all actors whose careers begin at such an early age. Still, for Hawke, this shift was at once easy (work was plentiful, and some projects, like Gattaca and Training Day, were notable hits) but, creatively speaking, gradual and sometimes frustrating. Hawke’s stardom was predicated in large part on a notion of him as sensitive and pretty, regardless of the fact that he routinely took to the stage in serious theatrical productions (The Seagull, Henry IV) and that his movie choices were far more daring than the routine action blockbusters and formulaic rom-coms that Hollywood sees as the surest paths to superstardom.
Credit age, the well-publicized personal obstacles that come along with it (most famously, his split from wife Uma Thurman), or wiser role selection, but in the last few years, Hawke has leapt across that chasm, finding in a variety of parts the means to remake himself as an authoritative adult presence. That transition began in earnest last year, in the criminally underrated Sinister, which due to its “from the producer of Paranormal Activity” advertising taglines was largely dismissed as another horror toss-off.
Such disregard, however, meant that most missed one of Hawke’s most striking performances of the past decade, a multifaceted turn — as a true-crime novelist who moves his wife and kids into a house where a grizzly murder took place — that found him exuding frazzled obsession and desperate ambition for a complicated portrait of fatherhood. Amidst the ghostly specters and bumps in the night, Hawke grounded the supernatural material in relatable internal conflicts, his paterfamilias torn between a selfish hunger for fame, a desire to protect his brood, and the fact that his work potentially threatened his family.
Such paternal discord is also at the root of The Purge, Hawke’s forthcoming horror effort (out June 7) about a man whose clan is endangered during the annual, government-sanctioned night when all crime is permitted. It’s another part that allows the actor to tap into adult male issues of responsibility and sacrifice, free of the petulant brooding and self-definition anxieties that marked his early, memorable turns. Nowhere is that change more apparent, however, than in Before Midnight, which — after the heady romance of Before Sunrise and the reunited-bliss of Before Sunset — now finds Hawke’s Jesse in a committed relationship with Julie Delpy’s Celine that’s complicated by kids (two with Celine, one from a prior marriage), a contentious ex-wife, and a more general malaise born from years of gripes, resentments and regrets.
Co-written by Hawke and Delpy (with bits of autobiographical shrapnel strewn throughout), Before Midnight is concerned with the fading spark of early passion and the increasing burdens of adulthood. Hawke and Delpy’s naturalistic rapport carries the performers from intellectual debate to philosophical inquiry to passive-aggressive hostility and even outright fury and despair. What emerges is a pressing depiction of the strains (and pain) that come from understanding at last that everything in life must change.
Throughout the film, the key to the success of long-term relationships is presented as survival via adaptation — even as that is shown to be potentially impossible. It’s in Hawke’s excited eyes as he discusses his future novel next to the ocean, and in his tense shoulders as arguments mount with Delpy in a posh bedroom, that the actor seems to shift before our eyes into a figure of newfound stature — alternately confident and unsure, unwavering and fallible, curious and jaded. In a cinematic series and career notable for their variable natures, he’s an actor transformed.