‘A Bright Ray of Darkness,’ Ethan Hawke’s Pretentious, Whiny Autofiction

OJ’s ‘If I Did It’ for the pseudo-intellectual set

When writing A Bright Ray of Darkness, it’s possible Ethan Hawke clung a tad too desperately to that worn advice to write what you know. Like Ethan Hawke, the fictional actor William Harding found fame in a movie where he played an awkward student, starred in an artsy space movie, and even made a cop flick. Similarly, he married a wildly successful, stunningly beautiful woman, had two children with her, then starred as Hotspur in Henry IV while going through their ultra-publicized divorce.

An autobiography might have been a more direct approach, except for one key thing: William is a spoiled, self-absorbed, misogynistic jackass, whereas we don’t know the truth about Ethan Hawke. Rather than boldly sharing the story of his own life, the author hides amidst the blurry label of fiction to grant himself impunity to express self-absorbed, puerile sentiments one suspects are his truth; this is OJ’s If I Did It for the pseudo-intellectual set.

Ethan Hawke

William recounts cheating on his wife with a gorgeous woman so DTF that she prances into the street in a state of undress to get a condom. She returns to the room, where he weeps on her, falls asleep, then awakens, jarred to realize they’re having raw dog sex. The anonymous woman begs him to use her body and finish on her with abandon, wherever he chooses. He complies repeatedly, after which she whispers “melancholy” into his ear, saying, “You are like a memory already.” Milan Kundera, this is not.

Later, the coked-up narrator encounters a woman he equates to “a walking key lime pie—if you love key lime pie.” Of course, this glorious specimen and her foxy friend ardently rip off their clothes in the pool to serenade a willing William. The text thoroughly describes their nudity, including “their naked legs clasped tightly around their vaginas,” which is in no way how anatomy actually works.

Soon after, a trashy but way sexy lady writhes and dances for him, begging for William to beat her during sex. He valiantly complies, and it gives him so much life he realizes he doesn’t care if he also gets her pregnant or contracts a weird STD. At work, he alternately ogles and avoids his Henry IV costar, who tells him she sees his sadness and yearns to put his dick in her mouth.

This is either high art styled by Cinemax, or Cinemax donning a classy fedora, but not in a good way at all. One could dismiss this as a top-shelf example of a man writing women as bodies, not people, but to be fair, the one-note expositional males William encounters come across equally stilted and barely dimensional, albeit while wearing more clothes. These fellas spontaneously offer wordy ruminations on bitchy females, the glorious sexual abandon of younger women, and their generalized envy of William’s luck in regards to both fame and the ladies. The Twilight novels offer more insightful, realistic portrayals of the human condition than A Bright Ray of Darkness.

In spite of his prowess and professional achievements, William craves his estranged wife’s attentions. He resents her career, and fantasizes she’ll see his play to subtly convey her desire to salvage their relationship. Fiction mirrors reality once more when his wife handily moves on without him and finds love with a billionaire. William agonizes over her time with their children, her new lover, and her sultry magazine cover shoot with the headline, “Would you cheat on this woman?” The poor manchild is very put-upon and terribly victimized by his own self, and never sorry for any of his choices. If there was a plot or compelling narrative, this could be forgivable, endearing, or worthwhile. Instead, it’s pointless.

The juvenile masturbatory prose and stilted characterizations aren’t the novel’s only issues. Though purportedly a contemporary story, the setting feels anachronistic. People read newspapers and magazines, and use BlackBerries in taxicabs. William’s wife stars in a wildly popular music video, and her character is the most popular Halloween costume of the year. Every day, he uses quarters to buy an ice cream sandwich from a vending machine. It’s almost like this character exists in the reality of the author in 2003, not in our world almost two decades later.

Similarly, William’s age and attitude seem out of sync. At 32, he bemoans his choice to marry far too young when he was only 27. He faces a medical crisis, and rushes the treatment to perform a matinee for high-schoolers, because he thinks they’ll cherish his performance more than any other crowd because they’ll know him as a movie star. When they dislike him, he gets angry, and sneers at their “iPhone addicted tweeting” selves like a cantankerous old man. To succeed as a novel, A Bright Ray of Darkness should have offered more brightness or darkness and a lot less of the pretentious whining of Ethan Hawke.


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Paula Shaffer

Paula Shaffer has worked on shows for a variety of networks including ABC, Hulu, A&E, HGTV, and WeTV. Her family zom-com script, Chompers, was a selected work of the Stowe Story Labs Feature Campus in 2021, and a 2022 semi-finalist in the Emerging Screenwriters contest, which led to placement on the Coverfly Red List.

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