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SXSW: Ethan Hawke bulks up thin 'Adopt a Highway'

Matthew Odam
Ethan Hawke stars as an ex-con trying to find his way back to normalcy on the outside. [Contributed]

Ethan Hawke has mastered working in limited frameworks. From the dialogue-driven “Before” trilogy to the single-room “Tape,” Hawke holds the space required to pull the audience directly in. His mastery of quiet minimalism in last year’s “First Reformed” should have earned him an Oscar.

So, it is safe to say we can watch Hawke do just about anything. Or nothing. And that’s a good thing with “Adopt a Highway,” as first-time filmmaker Logan Marshall-Green’s script gives Hawke very little with which to work. The film made its world premiere Sunday during South by Southwest.

Hakwe plays Russell Millings, a 44 year-old victim of the now defunct “Three Strikes” program who is just (seemingly reluctantly) coming out of a 20-year sentence incited by his arrest for carrying an ounce of marijuana. A fact that is both quaint and deeply wrong, as Millings’ face registers in one scene.

The shaggy-haired and oft-bespectacled Millings, looking like a cross between 80s Nick Nolte and Kurt Rambis, takes a job at a fast food restaurant and encounters, to mild comedy, the unfamiliarities of the modern world. He discovers a baby in a dumpster one night while taking out the trash and, desperate for connection, takes the baby back to his motel room. A few sequences give the movie a “One Man and a Baby” comedic feel, but once the police are entered into the narrative, you can sense Millings’ tenuation tethe to reality begin to unravel.

Blumhouse produced “Adopt a Highway,” and given the companies penchant for horror and the genre bona fides of actor-turned-director Marshall-Green, the audience could be forgiven for expecting a dire and sudden jolt to the narrative. Such upheaval and terror never arrives, for both better and worse. Instead, Marshall-Green holds the camera close on his lead, as Jason Isbell’s score sways between Explosions in the Sky grandeur and country road-story wistfulness, and we are forced to intuit backstory, motivation, fears and hopes in Hawkes’ eyes. Fortunately, his eyes have it.

“Adopt a Highway” screens again Thursday night at 11 p.m. at Alamo South Lamar.