Ethan Hawke’s best performances, ranked

Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb.

Despite calling superhero stories overrated in the past, Ethan Hawke is set to appear in Disney Plus’ upcoming Marvel series Moon Knight after accumulating an already eclectic filmography over the course of his acting career. He’s starred in horror movies, action movies, remakes, shoots that have lasted as long as his co-star’s childhood, and even a few underrated historical dramas. This smorgasbord of stories can cause one to wonder which of these colorful films have contained Hawke’s best efforts as an actor so far.

As always, we’ve got you covered. We took a look back at Hawke’s lengthy resume and compiled this list of his top 10 best performances. We utilized Rotten Tomatoes scores to gage critical reception, but did not consider data from the site to be the sole factor in our decisions, as audience response does not always align with what the critics say.

10. Dead Poets Society (1989)

Many remember this 85 percent positive movie about a teacher who inspires his students at a stuffy boarding school in Vermont for being one of Robin Williams’ more dramatic performances, but it also features a young Ethan Hawke as the youth lead. It’s inspiring to see his Todd come into his own, and watching him compose a poem in real time in the above clip will move you. He and Williams have great chemistry in the scene, though Hawke did say at a film festival last year that he thought Williams hated him. Whether or not that’s true, Hawke’s performance as Todd demonstrated his range as a young actor, hinting at the birth of a career in film.

9. Before Sunrise (1995)

This first installment in a trilogy from frequent Hawke collaborator Richard Linklater finds him in the role of Jesse. When Jesse meets a woman on a train in Europe, they connect and sparks immediately fly as they talk about their lives. In the end, they leave a chance at more connection up to fate. Hawke has great chemistry with co-star Julie Deply and even the trailer alone will make you smile. Critics gave this a 100 percent positive rating and its sequels received similar acclaim in 2004 and 2013.

8. Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)

This police drama and remake of director John Carpenter’s 1976 original is a bit of a comedown from the acclaimed Training Day Hawke starred in in 2002. It has a 60 percent positive rating compared to 73 percent for his work with Denzel Washington and barely made any money at the box office. Still, he does a good job as a policeman trying to recover from trauma and his subtle work in moments like the sniper sequence above show that he should play leading roles where a main character is in crisis and has to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds far more often.

7. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)

A crime drama from the legendary Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network), this piece has Hawke playing the brother of a man planning to flee the country. Hawke’s Hank gets caught up in his brother’s criminal activity, and after a robbery-gone-wrong, Hank begs another person to kill him before running off into the sunset in a rare ending for this genre. It earned an 88 percent positive rating from critics while those in general audiences had a 71 percent positive view of it.

6. Daybreakers (2009)

This film ⏤ a metaphor for climate change ⏤ sees a world dominated by vampires trying to develop an alternate source of blood and features Hawke in the lead role as a hematologist researching a substitute. It’s a cool premise, which critics liked better than audiences with scores of 69 and 49 percent, respectively, and the above scene with Sam Neill illustrates his quiet hero. Monsters can be cheap, but Hawke elevates the concept into one with a redemptive core.

5. Boyhood (2013)

While this movie may be better known for its innovative idea of filming from 2002-13 to capture an actual youth’s growth as opposed to its actual plot, it earns a spot on our list for a couple of reasons. To start, Hawke re-teaming with Richard Linklater is always a plus and the above scene where he’s teaching his children how to talk about their lives with him is really funny. It earned a 97 percent positive rating from critics, who said Hawke was superb and not someone taking the easy path with his performance.

4. First Reformed (2017)

This drama centered around the decline of religion sees Hawke team with the iconic Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo) and finds him playing a priest in crisis. When you see his Toller talk about the experience of losing his son, you believe that you’re witnessing someone’s real story. A mis-casting to be recalled for the rest of time, this is definitely not. Here, critics were 93 percent positive in their assessments and writer Justin Chang said Hawke was born to play this role.

3. Sinister (2012)

This 63 percent positive horror movie stars Hawke as writer Ellison Oswalt and presents an interesting idea about the kinds of things left behind in a house when a new family moves in. Oswalt is desperate for a break after some hard years in his career, has arguments with family about doing something with more stability, and is convincingly rattled in the top clip. It would be interesting to see Hawke do something similarly unsettling after The Black Phone debuts later this year.

2. The Good Lord Bird (2020)

It’s a bit unusual that noted American abolitionist John Brown has not had more movies and television made about him, but we’re lucky to see Hawke do it here. This miniseries has a positive rating of 98 percent, and watching Hawke’s Brown preach to the congregation in the clip above is strong enough to make one rise to any call. While some see him as a terrorist, others see him as a visionary and the debate is an endlessly fascinating one.

1. The Phenom (2016)

It’s been reported in the past that Hawke had a policy of never playing villains in his career. He scrapped that notion for The Black Phone, is doing the same with Moon Knight, and was clearly not adhering to it in The Phenom, either. Though this movie is 79 percent positive and contains many common sports movie tropes, Hawke’s abusive parent is utterly terrifying, lending a different shade to this particular baseball drama. Hawke plays a character who is relentlessly cruel, further demonstrating the emotional toolbox he has at his disposal, and essentially juxtaposes a majority of the characters he’s played. If there are any remaining questions about his acting ability, they end with The Phenom.

This concludes our list of Ethan Hawke’s best performances to date. In March’s Moon Knight, he’ll be playing cult leader Arthur Harrow and will encourage the titular character to be a dark one. We eagerly anticipate Hawke’s foray into the MCU as well as every other performance he churns out next.