Low Down is about a child watching a grown man as he succumbs to life.  It is not a cheerful film, and while its milieu is that of the world of jazz, it does not believe in endless drum solos defying an unkind world. This is the story of a piano player (John Hawkes), brilliant but hesitant, who is slowly silenced by the difficulties of what he has endured and what he has inflicted on others. He has one consolation—beyond his music—which is the face of his child, a daughter, who grows older and sadder, but endures. So it’s a film about Elle Fanning looking at John Hawkes, in which Ms. Fanning knows she’s watching a master, even if he is not regarded as a great star. We are not smart enough for that.

Joe Albany (1924–88) was a real figure in jazz history, and a little unusual in that, as a young white player, he got to work with Charlie Parker and many of the leading black musicians of the late 1940s and ’50s.  But he became a heroin addict (which was true of Parker, as well, though he died much younger than Albany). He had a daughter, Amy-Jo, and for some of the time they lived together, each one tried to raise the other, or keep the other from collapsing. The daughter wrote a book about this struggle: Low Down: Junk, Jazz and Other Fairy Tales from Childhood, and that is the basis for the film, which has been scripted by Topper Lilien and directed by Jeff Preiss. The film concentrates on the mid-’70s when the daughter is edging into her teens. This is not precise, though it’s plain that in the span of the film she becomes old enough for romance (alas, she picks a drummer with his own dire habit) and for the wisdom that realizes she is never going to save her Dad.

The film is not meant to be a fluent narrative—these people don’t have such lives: there’s a wife (Amy’s mother) who departs; there’s a girlfriend who overdoses; and there’s a mother who despairs of Joe. The greater continuity is a world of rundown rooming hotels in the Los Angeles area, places of dust and shuttered sunlight where old black-and-white televisions coexist with junk food, and strange neighbors who may be into making porn or trying to avoid prison or probation. The film escapes sometimes to a club or a bar where Joe soars for a moment or two, but like a bird who cannot trust his wings. It is a world that one can find in some of the best noir films, in the work of Charles Bukowski and John Fante, or the muddled lives of so many jazz musicians. So it’s worth saying that director Jeff Preiss was photographer on Let’s Get Lost, Bruce Weber’s beautiful and wasted study on the life of Chet Baker.

Baker was a beauty once: people compared him with Montgomery Clift. But then Chet’s face collapsed: He lost his teeth and his chops, and the narcissistic gaze that had drowned out character dried up. There is a similarly crushed prettiness in John Hawkes’ Joe. Hawkes is 55 yet he can look 15 years younger when he smiles. In truth, he does not have a great deal of strenuous acting to do in this film—there are few big scenes, and much more worn-out existence and fatalistic stillness. But that fits Albany, because he was in retreat, backing away from difficulty and taking every easy way out until the escape became unbearable. Hawkes has chosen to be this man, and to let what I will call weakness rise up in his face. It’s a little like watching a Sean Penn who has given up on anger, vanity, and plans. That doesn’t mean Penn wouldn’t have done a good job in the film—along with Mark Ruffalo, who was the original casting. But Hawkes knows that any bold alternative to Joe’s ingrowing malaise would cheat the film, and not every actor trusts that much ordinary failure.

In the last few years, Hawkes has done more good work than most other actors—and we have plenty of fine actors. He was the vicious Teardrop in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone; he was daring, comic, sensual, and so moving with Helen Hunt in The Sessions. He has so much more to his credit—Deadwood, Lost, and Eastbound & Down—this man is astonishing.  Yet I suspect John Hawkes exists from job-to-job. I doubt he’s ever had a payday such as he deserves, or of a weight to remove insecurity. Can it comfort him to know—just like Joe Albany—that his genius is linked to that uneasy sense of future?

Low Down is lifted up by its cast: Glenn Close plays Joe’s mother and Amy’s grandmother, without benefit of make-up or soft lighting, and it is as good a piece of work as she has done; Lena Headey is despairingly eloquent as the girl’s mother; there are a few moments of Peter Dinklage to treasure. And much more. But Elle Fanning is at the heart of the movie. You can say she was a little too old for the role (playing eleven at fifteen); and I suspect the real girl became tougher than Fanning shows. It doesn’t matter. What demonstrates the honesty of this whole film is the way Fanning—who is surely pretty—never once lets girlish cuteness get in the door. She and her director have trusted to the simple banality of a face trying to mask terrible thoughts. She knows, I think, that Hawkes is the show, and the way she gazes at him defines the life of the film. Low Down is a knockout, a candid picture of much of jazz, and one more step for a master actor.  

An earlier version of this piece stated that John Hawkes had a role in The Place Beyond the Pines and Starred Up, which he did not. We regret the error.