Judge Franck Tabouring would not necessarily travel to the hottest state.
"My heart is gold. What will you give me for it?"—Tennessee Williams
In 2001, Ethan Hawke made his first directorial debut with Chelsea Walls, a drama about five stories set at the famous Chelsea Hotel in New York City. The film proved Hawke is up to more than just acting, and critics welcomed his effort. Now he returns to the big screen with The Hottest State, an adaptation of his own 1997 semi-autobiographical novel of the same title. Unfortunately, the movie barely made it onto a handful of screens this summer, disappearing again before anyone could really take notice. Even the critics were not convinced, and so the weather in the hottest state remained rather cold.
Facts of the Case
Talking to a girl about Star Trek is probably not the best pick-up line, but for William (Mark Webber, Dear Wendy), a 20-year-old actor who fled Texas to kick off his career in New York, it seems to work. His person of interest is Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno, Maria Full of Grace), a gorgeous Latin American who has similar plans and just recently moved to Manhattan to become a singer. The two meet at a bar on a cold winter night, kiss before parting ways, and soon engage in a complicated relationship that has both of them wondering whether they are really dating or just pretending.
A few weeks later William lands a role in an Alfonso Cuaron movie, and he invites Sara to accompany him to Mexico for the shooting. She agrees to stay for a while, and the two enjoy a wonderful week full of passion and love. Then she heads back home early, and when William returns and knocks on her door, she tells him she doesn't want a boyfriend anymore. Shocked and helpless, William finds it hard to accept this cold rejection, trying everything in his power to convince Sara to take him back and return his love.
The Hottest State has many flaws that make it an underdeveloped and often saccharine mess, but there is a certain truth to the central idea of the film. In short, the plot centers on a young man who is crazy about a girl and wishes she would love him the same way he loves her. Sadly, this is not the case, and William struggles hard to accept the fact that there's no room for him in Sara's turbulent life. Once you get to know the feeling of loving someone so intensely, all you want to do is hold on to it, he tells us. Some of his words are undoubtedly true, and many of us know how it feels to love someone who refuses to return our love. William's dilemma is a common one, and people in similar situations will find it easy to identify with him. They will remember and know how it feels to be rejected and how hard it is to let go. The film does not fail in showing that William struggles to let her go, but it treats his confusion in an excessively unconvincing way. Instead of digging deeper into his mind and making his dilemma a more compelling one for us to watch, Hawke has him recite parts from Romeo & Juliet outside of Sara's apartment. At times William's behavior comes close to that of a stalker, and there's no way we're going to buy it.
Clocking in at 117 minutes, Hawke's film version of his book is overstuffed with topics and themes. While most of the plot follows William on a search for his identity and his quest to cure his heartache, the final part takes a drastic turn, shifting all attention on his dysfunctional family and his miserable childhood. Instead of coming clean with Sara and find some peace in his heart, William heads to Texas and tries to blame his behavior and bad luck on his father and what happened between his parents. These sudden shifts usually take the importance off one topic to another, which only creates disturbances in the plot and risks lessening our interest in the characters.
Another major issue that damages the movie as a whole is the lack of focus on Sara's character. William is the one standing in the center of the movie, and while Hawke spends an awful lot of time following Webber's character, we never learn much about who Sara is and why she has trouble returning William's love. She repeatedly tells him she has come to New York to be on her own, but the film rarely or never offers her a moment to give a sincere and reasonable explanation. We do learn that one of her past relationships was a massive failure, but that's it. If Hawke gave her more importance and a stronger personality, the film would flourish with more subtlety, which in return would lead to a more complex relationship between the main characters. Doing only half of the work and closely examining one side of the story is usually not enough to satisfy an audience.
In the role of William, Webber delivers a solid performance, although he could have done way better. He almost overdoes his role, partly because he lacks the necessary experience to portray an actor playing an actor. Catalina Sandino Moreno scored a memorable performance in Maria Full of Grace, but her portrayal of Sara remains cold, partly because her character remains such a mystery. Hawke's script gives her nothing to work with, which makes her acting look stiff and shallow. Appearances by Laura Linney, Michelle Williams, and even Ethan Hawke are too short, and they never stand a real chance to appropriately develop their intriguing characters. Linney for instance, has the most captivating lines in the entire film, but before she can prove her qualities and save the film, her time is up and she disappears again.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The unique soundtrack is truly among the best I have listened to in a long time. Essentially, it's also what keeps the film alive. Willie Nelson, Bright Eyes, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Feist, and Jesse Harris all contribute to a wonderful selection of songs that come in extremely handy every time you feel the plot is moving too slow and you risk dozing off. I can't recall any scene without any of the marvelous music playing in the background, and if you even shift your attention to the lyrics of the tracks, you'll instantly realize that most of them emit more profound romance and tragedy than William and Sara's dialogue. It's not a fiesta for your eyes but at least is one for your ears.
Since the film comprises a series of gorgeous shots of Texas, Mexico, and the New York skyline, and the lighting helps set the general mood of the film, the quality of the video transfer is crucial. Indeed, the picture is sharp enough all throughout. The audio is of excellent quality as well, and since the soundtrack is of major importance to the film, the music and dialogue are crisp and well-balanced.
Besides a theatrical trailer and a vast trailer gallery showcasing the latest ThinkFilm releases, the bonus material on the disc includes Straight To One, Ethan Hawke's first short film from 1994. The story, which is set in Manhattan's Chelsea Hotel, focuses on two newlyweds who fled Texas to start over in New York City. Although the 21-minute film is not at all related to The Hottest State, it is a precious jewel proving Hawke's potential to write and direct. It definitely saves the DVD from scoring a very negative grade in terms of extras.
That leaves us with the only other extra in the special features section: the filmmakers' commentary. I have to admit I was quite surprised by this one. Ethan Hawke is interesting to listen to, and he talks in length about the fantastic soundtrack and how he got Willie Nelson and Norah Jones to record some of the songs exclusively for the movie. Joining Hawke are cinematographer Christopher Norr, producer Alexis Alexanian, editor Adriana Pacheco, and songwriter Jesse Harris, who all add compelling facts about the story, shooting, and editing of The Hottest State. Hawke also talks about how to make the transition from book to film and discusses what they cut out of the book and in what ways the film version differs from its source material. All in all, it's a decent commentary with enough input from the crew, and one that achieves in making this movie a little more interesting.
Ethan Hawke is a fabulous actor and he may be a skillful writer and director, but he quite simply took on too many roles at once for this project. I can't say The Hottest State is a complete mess, but the movie clearly suffers from a series of flaws that could have easily been avoided by penning a solid and more mature script with a more intense character development. Sad to say, the weather in the hottest state is not that hot after all.
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Scales of Justice
• Filmmaker Commentary with Ethan Hawke and Crew
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