Ethan Hawke’s debut as director comes in the form of a biopic of country-blues musician Blaze Foley. According to Rolling Stone, Michael David Fuller aka “Depty Dog” aka Blaze Foley was a “quintessential American artist before such a thing existed.” He didn’t want to be a star, because stars burn out shining for themselves. No, he was going to be a legend.
That’s how Ben Dickey explains it, embodying Blaze in the back of a pickup to his muse Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat). Cool as a cucumber, as if becoming a legend is as simple as lighting a cigarette or shooting an ounce of Kentucky sour mash whiskey.
Dickey’s Blaze Foley is like that. Cool, soft-spoken. But always saying something on the edge of profound. We first see him, however, acting a fool in the recording studio. Clenching a cigarette in his grinning teeth. Sunglasses concealing his intentions. Mumbling loudly some manifesto that only he can truly discern. His is a man with his whole reputation to lose (potentially before he even gets it), but he couldn’t care less about it. He drinks away his gigs. Tosses punches at those who cross him, or those that don’t respect his time on stage. Acting as if he has already burned out, even though his work is shining brighter than ever.
The intense reverence for Blaze is evident in Hawke’s framing structure. The story of Blaze Foley is told in a radio interview. Hawke portrays the DJ who is ignorant of Foley’s existence (we never see his face in focus). Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton) foregoes talk about his new record to spin the mythical yarn of Blaze, while background musician Zee (Josh Hamilton) chimes in to correct certain details.
Though this framing device feels, at its lowest moments, formulaic and awkwardly staged, Hawke uses it to weave a narrative that bounces around in time with seamless ease. Graphic matches link Blaze’s past with his final performance, a memorial show to Merle Haggard attended by no more than a dozen bar patrons.
Through these graphic matches, simple images are given more purpose. Snapshots of a life just a little less ordinary. He and Sybil may have started their relationship living in a rundown shack in the middle of the forest. But their love is universally understood. Blaze’s pains and hopes and ambitions: all commonplace. Hawke is able to maintain the mythic status of his hero while making him an open book.
Of course, the credit is shared with Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the script, and Dickey, whose performance is revelatory. No acting performance this year has been so vulnerable, ferocious, and poetic. And it would take the person closest to that vulnerability and ferocity to distill the man into words.
Not all of the words, though, are necessary. While the frequent ruminative diversions can be meditative, the solemn understanding of life’s continual struggles oddly comforting, they also wind themselves into tight knots of pretension. The more characters talk among themselves about life, the more abstract the conversations get. The sentences become like the first draft lyrics to a blues ballad.
They are not as poetic as the scenes where the only lines are mumbled. Like when Blaze exits the bar where he’s playing a gig and interacts with a father and daughter who are selling flowers out of their truck. Or when he sits alone on the curb, bleary and drunk, lamenting the life he threw away.
Dickey’s performance permeates life across every frame. And Blaze doesn’t require much more than that to be enthralling. Even when the film falters, Dickey returns to the screen to perform a heart-wrenching number or deliver a powerful line with equally powerful nonchalance. When a trio of distracting cameos walk into the film at once, ruining the atmosphere of the film through the strange casting choices, Dickey sits in a chair and delivers a show-stopping monologue that reels you back in. He’s just that good. And that’s all there is to it.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)