Having never particularly cared for Ethan Hawke, it’s odd to find myself conceding that he’s had a pretty good year. He abandoned his usual sense of smug self-satisfaction to turn in a truly demented performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed a few months ago, and now in the director’s chair, he’s crafted one of the most tonally dialed-in music biopics in years with Blaze.
This lyrical examination of singer-songwriter Blaze Foley’s hard-knock life and untimely death feels like a country song in all the right ways, evoking not only the laconic mood of its subject’s songs but also the tumult of his inner landscape. It’s a moving and heartfelt portrait that represents a distinct departure from Hawke’s middling earlier directorial efforts, and for that I am pleasantly — and thankfully — surprised.
Occasionally rambling and shambolic, Blaze nevertheless creates a genuine sense of character that is as undeniably impressive as it is affective. Musician Benjamin Dickey and Arrested Development alum Alia Shawkat star as Foley and his ex-wife Sybil Rosen, and their performances are unexpectedly layered given the film’s atypical structural conceits. Hawke and the real Rosen — adapting from her memoir/biography of Foley — use two separate framing devices that complicate their through line somewhat unnecessarily, the first focusing on Foley’s last performance before being murdered by an acquaintance, the second depicting a radio interview with Foley’s friend Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton). The nonlinear narrative comes across as overkill and at times hurts the film’s pacing, but the gambit ultimately pays off by preserving an air of suspense around Foley’s death while allowing ample running time to address his rise from bucolic obscurity to near stardom and posthumous cult-icon status.
Rosen’s involvement may explain some of the depth developed in the central relationship, but it also leads to her character’s improbably saintly depiction at the expense of other figures, most notably the unflattering representation of Van Zandt. Still, it’s the solid performances from Dickey, Shawkat and Sexton that sell the occasionally clunky dialogue and stave off the possible obtrusiveness of cameos from Hawke’s celebrity buddies, such as Sam Rockwell, Richard Linklater and Kris Kristofferson. If nothing else, Hawke has established himself as a competent director of actors, despite his workmanlike stylization.
Although the majority of Foley’s recordings have only recently been made widely available, his reputation precedes him — a fact that Hawke alludes to with an opening quote about Blaze from none other than Willie Nelson. For fans of outlaw country, Blaze will provide a sufficiently compelling narrative about an underacknowledged figure and an engaging, if not particularly insightful, character study. Those completely unfamiliar with the world of Wille and Waylon et al. will still find plenty of emotional intrigue and texturally adept world building to hold their attention for the majority of the movie’s prodigious 127-minute running time. It’s a good film if not a fully great one, but its constituent elements are more than enough to warrant a recommendation. And like its protagonist, Blaze is likely to linger with the audience long after the final credits roll.