Watching the excellent drama Winter’s Bone for other day, I was instantly bowled over by the assured and confident central performance from twenty year-old Jennifer Lawrence. She’s bound to be a shoo-in for a Best Actress nomination at next year’s Academy Awards (and rightly so), but there’s another cast member who is as equally impressive and believable, the character actor John Hawkes.
In the role of Lawrence’s drug-addled uncle, Teardrop, he’s almost unrecognisable here with his greying beard and gaunt (more so than usual), lived-in tattooed face. Every time he appears on screen (particularly with Lawrence) there’s a palpable feeling of tension, as you’re unsure as to how he will react to his niece’s stoic persistence in tracking down her father (his brother) who’s disappeared following his release from bail. There’s an uneasy mix of menace and tenderness in Hawkes eyes throughout the film, and even though he is of small statute, he commands the screen whenever he appears on it, and looks every bit the scruffy, edgy backwater criminal he’s portraying.
Comparing Hawkes’ appearance here to that of his role in Miranda July’s indie/arthouse quirk-fest, Me and You and Everyone We Know, (where he plays a sweet, downtrodden shoe salesman who’s been left to pick up the pieces of a marriage in tatters and look after his two young sons) and his chameleon-like abilities are even more than apparent. Occupying that traditional character-actor attribute of having one of those faces you've seen before without knowing the name, he deserves to be in the Philip Seymour Hoffman league of being recognised in person, alongside the work.
My first exposure to this Minnesota-born actor and musician was his small role at the beginning of 1996’s Dusk till Dawn (although his IMDB page lists a body of work that stretches back to over a decade prior to Rodriguez’s Tex Mex vampire flick). For a film loaded with memorable bit-players and a wealth of quotable scenes, Hawkes really stands out in what is a brief screen appearance as Pete, the hapless liquor store employee whose composure is severely tested as he deals with both the local law enforcement and the ruthless Gecko brothers.
His career choices after Dusk till Dawn have seen him appear in (and in doing so enhancing the quality of) bigger-budgeted ensemble dramas like The Perfect Storm, Identity and American Gangster, and smaller, more intimate pictures (like July’s debut). He was even part of the cast in the HBO series Deadwood and the channel’s recent, highly praised comedy Eastbound and Down (where he was happy to play second fiddle to star Danny McBride’s hilariously bloated and grotesque persona of disgraced ex-baseball star Kenny Powers).
Looking at the current crop of films he has in production, he’ll again be in the company of a large Hollywood cast (the upcoming Steven Soderbergh virus on the run action-thriller Contagion), which features the immaculately groomed visages of Matt Damon, Jude Law, Kate Winslet and Gwyneth Paltrow, amongst many others. I’m sure he doesn’t mind doing work like this (an actors gotta eat!) and as long as he can keep balancing these parts with more edge fare like Winter’s Bone, I think he could be in the position to take the mantle of this generation’s Harry Dean Stanton.
Like Stanton, he seems to be finding the meatier parts as he gets older (at 51, Hawkes is only two years younger than Stanton was when he showed up in Alien), and he also shares another similarity to the now octogenarian screen veteran, in that his name in the credits of a film and TV programme will always cause me to sit up and take notice, regardless of the quality.