****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT/SEE IT. Skip it in the theatre, as the film never rises to its artistic ambitions, but see it on cable or Netflix to catch Ben Dickey’s charismatic performance.
Blaze, written by Ethan Hawke and Sybil Rosen (based on Rosen’s book “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze") and directed by Hawke, is the story of enigmatic musician Blaze Foley. The film stars Ben Dickey as Blaze Foley and Elia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen, and features supporting turns from Josh Hamilton, Charlie Sexton, Sam Rockwell and Steve Zahn.
Blaze director Ethan Hawke is an intriguing character for having been the symbol of a sort of intellectual artist in the film business for nearly thirty years. Hawke’s attraction to the real-life Blaze Foley, a legendary but mysterious country music figure, is no doubt born out of his respect for Foley’s commitment to artistry over commerce.
Blaze is Hawke’s love letter to Foley and in a sense, a bit of projection, as Blaze Foley is what Hawke wishes he could more genuinely be…a tortured artist. While Hawke is certainly an artist, he is not a tortured one. Hawke has, by every measure, had a very successful, dare I say, comfortable life, first as the poster boy for Gen X ennui then as the symbol of intellectual literacy in a film industry that can barely read.
I was excited to see Blaze because as I have gotten older, I have grown to appreciate and respect Ethan Hawke more and more as an actor and also as a presence in our culture. Hawke may be a bit pretentious (as am I) and may be a bit of a poseur (as am I), but at the very least his pretensions and his pose are attempting to fill the cavernous void in American culture where stupidity is translated into relatability and intellectualism is maligned as elitism.
Sadly, Hawke’s Blaze misses the mark for a very surprising reason…it is suffocated by the orthodox conventions of the genre. Blaze is a standard bio-pic wearing an art house jacket. Hawke makes the unwise decision to hold to the traditional conventions of bio-pics, and thus neuters the story and the film of any and all cinematic vibrancy. For Blaze to have succeeded, Hawke needed to eschew the format of the bio-pic and commit to a pure arthouse exploration.
Yes, Hawke does sprinkle in some artistic homages to Robert Altman, and gives his actors a strong dose of freedom in front of the camera, but ultimately he confines his own vision into the straight jacket of the bio-pic, and that vision loses its artistic mind struggling to break free of such a stultifying form.
Bio-pics are, by nature, hagiographic, but the very best ones (Raging Bull, Malcolm X) at least give you a glimpse into the genuine person behind the myth. In Blaze, Blaze Foley is reduced to being a tall tale told for effect, not a quest for the truth at the center of the man. Blaze Foley is never revealed in this film, and by the end he is just as big a mystery, if not bigger, than he was when it began.
Blaze Foley is a mythical creature, like a guitar playing Sasquatch, and Hawke’s film of his life is a campfire story recounting that time someone saw a glimpse of a shadow in a dark forest and could swear it was Bigfoot.
There were some bright spots in the film, namely the magnetic performance from Ben Dickey as Blaze. Dickey has an ease and charm about him in front of the camera that is undeniable. He is also a magnetic screen presence with a palpable air of meloncholy and mischief about him, and because of that he lights up every single scene he inhabits.
On the down side, Elia Shawkat, who plays Foley’s wife, Sybil Rosen, is just not up to the task. Shawkat, who comes across as younger than she ought to be, underwhelms in a pivotal role, and it undermines the film even further.
Charlie Sexton, who plays Blaze’s friend and musical compatriot Townes Van Zandt, is also problematic, and feels stilted and unnatural on screen. The interview scenes of Townes that pepper the film, bring any sort of narrative or creative momentum to a screeching halt every time they pop up.
While there are some solid scenes and some directorial flair, such as an Adam and Eve scene where Sybil convinces Blaze to pursue glory, even feeding him an apple in the process, or a scene where Kris Kristofferson, playing Blaze’s father who barely speaks, is visited by Blaze, the rest of the film is basically recounting things that happened, which never gives us insight into the man.
At the end of the day, Blaze is a bit of an indulgent and unfocused film that needed a stronger hand and a more coherent cinematic aesthetic from its director, Ethan Hawke. As the film reveals to us, Townes Van Zandt is a mannered, self-serving liar, and Blaze Foley is an unabashed truth-teller, Ethan Hawke the director, lies somewhere in-between.