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“Blaze” is Ethan Hawke’s finest hour as a filmmaker

Among the many actors who also step behind the camera to direct, few are more underrated than Ethan Hawke. You can write whole articles on his acting prowess (and we have), but he’s also quite a filmmaker as well. This week, his best narrative feature to date is hitting screens in Blaze, an unconventional biopic of a criminally unknown Austin based musician. You can feel the passion that Hawke has for the topic, as it’s engrained in the film from start to finish. With a tremendous performance by Ben Dickey in the title role, there’s a lot to like here. Blaze, rather quietly, is one of the better independent outings of the summer.

The movie is a look at the life of Blaze Foley (Dickey), adapted from his partner Sybil Rosen’s book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze. Here, the official film synopsis is as follows: “A reimagining of the life and times of Blaze Foley, the unsung songwriting legend of the Texas Outlaw Music movement.” We follow Foley as he romances Rosen (Alia Shawkat), pals around with musician Townes Van Zant (Charlie Sexton), and overall lives an existence that seems larger than life in every way possible. Hawke directs and co-writes with Rosen, while the terrific ensemble cast includes Josh Hamilton, Kris Kristofferson, Richard Linklater, Jenn Lyon, Sam Rockwell, Wyatt Russell, and Steve Zahn, as well as Hawke himself, in addition to a host of others. Cinematography is by Steve Cosens. Everyone brings their A game too, in service of Hawke’s distinct vision.

If you love music, this flick is for you. Armed with Dickey’s larger than life turn as Blaze Foley, Hawke makes this a fascinating character study. Plus, it’s almost wall to wall filled with music, to the point where it’s somewhat hypnotic. You fall under Foley’s spell, and in turn, Hawke’s spell as well. The pacing may be a little bit deliberate for some, but if you’re on the same wavelength as Hawke here, that won’t be a problem. You’ll see what he’s trying to do, recognize that he’s succeeding in a big way, and appreciate what he’s managed to pull off.

Oscar may not notice a small film like Blaze, but along the precursor season, we could see some love come its way. Regardless of where it contends, Sundance Selects would do well to give it a push. Best Picture, Best Director (for Hawke), Best Actor (for Dickey), Best Actress (for Shawkat), Best Supporting Actor (for Sexton), and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Hawke and Rosen) are where the efforts should reside. Frankly, at places like the Gotham Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards, Dickey in Lead Actor and perhaps even the Screenplay could find some attention being paid. Time will tell there, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for.

Here is how I would rank Hawke’s directorial efforts to date:

4. Chelsea Walls
3. The Hottest State
2. Seymour: An Introduction
1. Blaze

Starting on Friday, curious folks can see what Hawke has been up to when Blaze hits screens. The movie is really something to seek out. As you can tell from the list above, the talented multi-hyphenate is getting better each time out. This is another example of how much talent Hawke has, across the board. Plus, Dickey deserves some further attention. The film won’t be for everyone, but if you can match its vibe, you’ll be in for a real musical treat. In many ways, this feels like a future cult classic for lovers of Austin based culture and music. It just has that soul inside of it…

Be sure to check out Blaze, in theaters beginning this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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