SXSW 2018: ‘Blaze’ is a terrific portrait of the artist as a poetic screw-up

Let the word go forth from this time and place: Ethan Hawke, director of the excellent Blaze Foley biopic “Blaze,” is apparently extremely good at getting stunning performances out of non-actors.

Ben Dickey, a 40-year-old musician from Arkansas, already has been feted at Sundance for his performance as Foley in “Blaze,” but nothing quite prepares you for seeing it on the big screen. It’s a tour de force of oversized charm and verve, a living ballad of song-writer-as-ramblin’-man (and almost compulsive screw-up).

Gauzy without being cloyingly mythic, Hawke lets us know Foley’s tragic end right up front — he died in 1989 at the edge of 40, shot during an altercation over his friend’s disability check, a death that might have been too strange and pointless and heroic and sad to even make for a good song.

After we meet Foley, in full Duct Tape Messiah mode, screwing around the studio with friend and running buddy Townes Van Zandt (Charlie Sexton, equally excellent in a completely different tone than Dickey), we flash back over a decade (we think) and see Foley as a younger man doing construction work in a theater.

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He meets Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat, earthy and vibrant), a young aspiring actress in … Arkansas, we think. (It is Rosen’s memoir upon which the film is based.)

Soon they are inseparable and living in a treehouse/cabin thing in the Georgia woods (right?). He is working on songs and dispensing almost Zen koans about life and art, she is acting and keeping a sort of vague house — they are Southern, post-hippie bohos of the first rank. Dickey and Shawkat do a phenomenal job embodying a relationship that neither of them really ever got over, such was its perfection.

We flash forward and back over the years as Hawke loosely braids a few plot threads.  We see Townes and  Zee (Josh Hamilton) conducting a myth-building radio interview about Blaze. We see Foley as a near-constantly drunken troubadour, small band in tow, cutting a live album at the Austin Outhouse that he cannot help but interrupt by getting into a fight.

We see Blaze and Sybil meet her parents (it seems entirely possible Sybil is the first Jew Blaze ever encountered; during the hang with her folks, the only one he can think of is Zero Mostel). We see them head to Austin, then Chicago, wherein their relationship reaches a point of untenability. Then Blaze heads back to Austin (right?) and the legend builds.

We see the start of the fight where Blaze died. We see his pals try to convey his epic character to a barely interested radio host. We see record execs try to make Blaze a star. We see him die (but, cannily, not shot). We see him missed by those who loved him.

Again, Dickey is luminescent throughout. He is almost never not on-screen and it’s the sort of part that gives veteran actors the shakes. But Dickey gives Foley a bearish charm, self-medicated instability and a swaggering desperation.

If the film has one constant frustration, it is that, in the possible service of timelessness and tonal ramble, Hawke is really vague about when and where things take place. Unless you know Foley well — and most don’t — you have to head to Google to know that his career ran from at most, around 1977 to his death in 1989. A few dates popping up on the screen would not have lessened the mood, Ethan.

But then, this is not a soup-to-nuts biopic. It’s an ode to the artist-as-emotional-outlaw, with all the good, bad and ugly that implies.  At one point, Foley tells his then-wife Sybil that he wants to be a legend rather than a star.  Bullseye.

Grade: B+

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