Famous directors – auteurs, if you want to get fancy – can often have their filmographies summed up in a few phrases. With Richard Linklater, those phrases are usually ‘laid back’, ‘preoccupied with time’ or ‘loosely structured’. However, these assumptions usually hide greater complexities. Throughout his near 30-year career, Linklater has dabbled in multiple genres and is constantly finding new ways to tell his stories.
After dropping out of college in the early ’80s, Linklater spent two years working on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He would alternate between intense reading at sea, and intense film-watching on land. At the time he wanted to be a writer, as “growing up in Texas that seemed like the only option”. Linklater soon came to realise that the cinema was his true calling, although his best films usually have him credited for the screenplay.
He began his film career by making shorts as part of the Austin Film Society (which he co-founded). His first feature was the rarely seen It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. A self-funded piece starring Linklater himself, the film is largely dialogue-free. Although it acts as a precursor to many of the themes explored in his later films, this is probably not the best introduction to Linklater, as it shows a filmmaker still trying to find his way.
Acting as a sort of spiritual sequel to Impossible to Learn, Slacker was the film that made Linklater’s name. Slacker was filmed in Austin, where it received its premiere in 1990. It arrived at the height of American independent cinema as names like Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh and eventually Quentin Tarantino were gaining international recognition. Slacker felt both new and approachable, liberated from the stranglehold of a traditional plot. Instead, the film camera lingers on one character going about their life for a few minutes, before meandering over to another. As such, the audience never spends much time with any of the misfits it portrays. Linklater managed to capture a malaise among (mostly) young, (mostly) white people who would be aggressively smooshed into the demographic known as Generation X.
But Slacker is more than a historical document of its time. The film has a specific rhythm to it: we see characters trying to grasp a way of living outside of the consumer society they find themselves trapped in, like the hippies who analyse cartoons like Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs. They argue that they indoctrinate children to accept bribery and conformity, all while sipping Budweiser and smoking cigarettes. Such contradictions can be found in the tone of the film as well. The dialogue invites identification with these oddball characters, but the wandering camera evokes a sense of detachment. Such ambivalence would find its way into Linklater’s next film.
Dazed and Confused, perhaps Linklater’s most iconic work, charts the first day of summer vacation for Texan teenagers in 1976. Although it has more of a narrative arc than Slacker, Dazed still maintains a loose structure and a wistful tone. Its portrayal of the 1970s is dripping with nostalgia, with a soundtrack boasting the likes of Alice Cooper and ZZ Top. The placement of songs is used to maximum effect, most noticeably when ‘School’s Out’ plays over a scene of kids rushing out for summer vacation. The “major character in the movie,” according to Linklater, is “the music”.
Similar to Slacker, the teenagers yearn for freedom against what they perceive to be a stifling society. Here it is more tangible as the football team are forced by their coach to sign a contract, pledging that they won’t drink or take drugs. Yet, the free-spirited teens are shown to participate in their own oppressive rituals. This is most explicit in the seniors’ hazing of the freshmen.
Slacker and Dazed utilised a large cast of characters to give an impression of a specific time. In his next film, Before Sunrise, Linklater went in the opposite direction. Based on an encounter Linklater had in 1989, the film stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as two strangers who meet on a train to Vienna and spend a romantic day together in the city before going their separate ways. In much the same way as he toyed with the high school film genre, here Linklater attempts an unconventional romance by choosing to emphasise the subtle awkwardness between Jesse and Céline. Part of the reason Before Sunrise works so well is because of co-writer Kim Krizan. She had small parts in Slacker and Dazed, but in Before Sunrise, she and Delpy ensure that Céline is not just an idealised love interest for Jesse, but rather a character of equal importance. Delpy acknowledges that “I knew unless I was tough with these two American men, Céline could have possibly disappeared into some cliche-ridden feminine mass.”
Linklater continued to experiment with Tape in 2001, in which Ethan Hawke returns alongside Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman. It’s based on a 1999 play where two high school friends reunite and confront each other about past sins. Set entirely in a motel room and shot on a camcorder, Linklater is still striving to be unique, but here he fails. Tape feels stagy, and the gimmicky use of a camcorder makes the picture look like a poorly-shot student film rather than a theatrical release with big name actors.
In the same year, however, Linklater also released one of the most imaginative films of his career. Waking Life is a series of vignettes in which fictional characters and real-life people (such as professional nut job Alex Jones) talk about philosophy and the nature of dreaming. These moments are roughly connected by an unnamed dreamer. What sets Waking Life apart is the use of rotoscoping: Linklater shot the live-action footage, and then had the results animated over by artist Bob Sabiston. The mixture of live-action with animation means that the film looks completely unique, and the way reality is distorted adds to the dreamlike atmosphere.
Returning to more traditional filmmaking, Linklater came out with School of Rock in 2003, which sees Jack Black teach posh kids how to rock out. This one seems the director’s most uncharacteristic film, and admittedly it wasn’t one that he wrote himself. The film is unique and funny thanks to Black’s comic style, plus the miraculous casting of the child actors. However, its treatment of nostalgia lacks the nuance of Dazed and Confused. The man-child that Black plays must learn responsibility while still holding on to his youthful energy. It’s a relatively uninspired character arc.
After trying a family film, Linklater would go back to his roots in 2004 with Before Sunset, reuniting Jesse and Céline nine years after the events of Before Sunrise. Céline is now married and a mother, so rather than portraying youthful love, it captures a romance between two characters who teeter on middle age. This time Hawke and Delpy are given writing credits and they melt into their characters perfectly. Linklater again shows his superb taste in music through one of the best uses of a Nina Simone song in film history.
Hollywood loves to adapt Philip K. Dick’s work but there have only been two successful adaptations. Blade Runner is the first, and Linklater’s version of A Scanner Darkly is the second. This is thanks to the performances of a cast which includes a recently-rehabilitated Robert Downey Jr, Winona Ryder, and Woody Harrelson as a group of fidgety drug addicts – appropriate casting for actors who, in Downey’s words, belong to a “generation of actors who [hadn’t] gotten through the last ten years in one piece.” The film marks the second collaboration between Linklater and Bob Sabiston, but whereas Waking Life looked like a series of moving paintings, A Scanner Darkly resembles a graphic novel that has come to life. The animated style also makes the hallucination scenes more believable as scenes can slip between the real and the unreal in a way that isn’t jarring.
After succeeding in the sci-fi genre, Linklater returned to a period setting with Me and Orson Welles, a fictionalised account of Welles’ 1937 theatrical production of Julius Caesar. Zac Efron plays a young actor who manages to get a small role, briefly becoming a part of the famous Mercury Theatre. While there he falls for a production assistant played by Claire Danes, creating a rift between him and the famous director. Christian McKay gives a great impression of Welles, but he never becomes a compelling character. The whole film feels slight and flimsy, which is a shame for a story set behind the scenes of a theatre production. Coming from the filmmaker who produced the Before films, Me and Orson Welles serves as proof that a Linklater film often needs a personal script in order to really succeed.
Fortunately, in the last five years Linklater has not disappointed. It started with the 2011 film Bernie, which saw Linklater reunite with Black and McConaughey. Black delivers one of the best performances of his career as the titular character, who murders a wealthy widow played by Shirley MacLaine. Because of his good standing in the community, and her poor reputation, the townspeople continue to support Bernie even though they know he’s guilty. Based on a true story, the film uses a documentary style similar to the openings of Strictly Ballroom and District 9. Bernie takes the obsession with true crime stories and twists it into a black comedy. Another noteworthy aspect of the film is McConaughey’s over-the-top performance as the District Attorney who prosecutes Bernie. Linklater had pushed McConaughey into the public consciousness with Dazed and Confused, where he played a seedy twenty-something who creeps on high school girls, and nearly 20 years later contributed, with Bernie, to the beginning of the so-called McConaissance.
In 2013 Linklater returned to Jesse and Céline for a third time in Before Midnight. The two are now married, and the film explores the growing cracks in their relationship. What’s so wonderful about this film is that it recontextualises the previous films in a way that few trilogies do without a plot twist. In a way the Before films feels more like one long film, mostly because of the relationship between the director and the actors. They are equals in both ability and affection for the story they tell, and there is a bittersweet pleasure in watching the characters grow older with each new chapter. The way Linklater captures this passage of time is breathtaking, but in the next year he would do so even more dramatically.
Back in 2002, Linklater started his most ambitious project to date. He would film the same actors for a few days every year, and tell a story that spanned 12 years. Boyhood focuses on the young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he goes through his childhood, but the film has just as much to say about parenthood. Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s irresponsible father, while Patricia Arquette portrays his hard-working mother. The film has been accused of relying on a gimmick, and while watching the actors grow up over three hours is certainly the draw, Linklater adds layers of texture to a traditional coming-of-age story. The audience only ever gets to see glimpses of Mason’s life, and so a lot of the details are meant to be inferred by looks or brief bits of dialogue. Linklater again uses popular music of the times to great effect. Never again will ‘Crank That’ be so welcome.
In some ways Boyhood represents a culmination of a theme that appears in Linklater’s greatest works: continuum. In a 1995 interview he stated “I don’t think people have changed, which is why all this generational talk is ridiculous”. By the final scenes of Boyhood, Mason begins to talk like Richard Linklater’s character did at the beginning of Slacker all the way back in 1991. Jesse and Céline similarly continue to cover old ground in the Before films. When viewed together, the characters in Linklater’s most memorable films are often struggling to find freedom and meaning in their lives. Rather than trying to tease out some definitive answers, however, these stories simply take pleasure in the questioning.
Top Five Richard Linklater films:
This is the best film to start with. The laid-back mood in Slacker makes for a great introduction to the style of Linklater’s best films. The eccentric characters and dry wit make it one of his most accessible films, while still being intelligent.
Dazed and Confused (1993)
The way this film interrogates nostalgia and the social landscape of high school makes it worth a watch. However, the iconic scenes, ultra-quotable dialogue, and Parker Posey shouting “Freshman Bitches” makes Dazed and Confused an undeniable classic of the genre.
Waking Life (2001)
Linklater takes the structure of Slacker and transposes it to a philosophical dreamscape. The animation makes Waking Life one of the most strangely beautiful films of the last two decades. Yet at the same it offers plenty of food for thought.
Before Midnight (2013)
All three of the Before films should be on this list, but Midnight is the ambassador for all three as it stands on what the previous instalments had built. Hawke and Delpy can transfix an audience with nothing more than their conversations, and Jesse and Cèline are rightly enshrined as one of the all-time great screen couples.
Some may say it’s overrated, or that it achieved success through a gimmick, but a closer look at the little details shows true craft in this 12-year filmmaking odyssey. It manages to speak both to children and parents in a way that seems effortless, but in reality took monumental dedication.