Director Retrospective: Richard Linklater
In my last Director Retrospective, we looked at the films of 1970s & 1980s director Hal Ashby, a director whose work I greatly enjoyed exploring (well…at least his 1970s films). But that got me to wondering if there were any contemporary directors who reminded me Ashby — i.e. his various emotional registers, his juxtaposition of tone, the tendency to focus primarily on outcast-type characters. The current director who immediately jumped to my mind: Richard Linklater.
The Big List
Thus far, I’ve watched 18 (of 19) feature-length films by Richard Linklater. Here’s the list: Slacker (1991); Dazed and Confused (1993); Before Sunrise (1995); SubUrbia (1996); The Newton Boys (1998); Waking Life (2001); Tape (2001); School of Rock (2003); Before Sunset (2004); Bad News Bears (2005); Fast Food Nation (2006); A Scanner Darkly (2006); Me and Orson Welles (2008); Bernie (2011); Before Midnight (2013); Boyhood (2014); Everybody Wants Some!! (2016); Last Flag Flying (2017). [The only film that I wasn’t able to track down was Linklater’s first film — It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. If you happened to have seen that film, let me know what you thought.]
The Top Five
Below are my picks for the Top Five feature-length films directed by Richard Linklater (ranked from #1-#5, with some brief comments on each one)…
Boyhood (2014) – When I first heard about Linklater’s Boyhood, I was pretty skeptical. After all, the premise of the film — one that was made periodically over the course of a decade using the same actors to portray the same characters as a way of tracing a coming-of-age family drama in real(ish) time — seemed a little too “gimmicky” for me. However, I was totally shocked to discover just how much I enjoyed this movie and how genuinely moving it was to watch how the characters (and the actors playing them) grew and changed over time. In fact, it’s a bit of a minor miracle that the film even exists — apparently, because of certain laws, none of the actors could officially, contractually commit to being in the movie (due to its decade-long filming schedule) and so each performer just had to sorta commit to the role out of personal/artistic interest in the project. [And, of course, there were other practical life-matters that could’ve easily derailed the project, which is why Linklater allegedly made contingency plans for who would finish the film in the event that he died before its completion. Ha ha!] Furthermore, there wasn’t really a script per se for the movie; rather, Linklater and the actors would collaborate every few years to create scenarios for their characters based on what they felt like their characters would be doing at that point in their lives. The performances here are strong — notably from Ethan Hawke (an actor I don’t typically care for but who produces the best work of his career in this film) and Patricia Arquette (who received a “Best Supporting Actress” Oscar for this role). Furthermore, the two child-and-eventually-adult actors (Ellar Coltrane & Lorelei Linklater) are effective in capturing the casualness of Linklater’s style — there’s a kind of neo-Realistic “non-acting acting” aspect to their performances. To me, it’s a real shame that Boyhood lost out on the “Best Picture” Academy Award to Birdman — a decent enough flick and one that also utilizes a specific cinematic effect (i.e. the long-take) but without nearly the complexity or poignancy or resonance of this film. One of the absolute best coming-of-age films of all time.
Dazed and Confused (1993) – One of the relatively few “generational” films that actually lives up to its considerable hype, Linklater’s Dazed and Confused documents a 24-hour period on the last day of school in small-town, 1970s Texas. Ostensibly focusing on Pink (soon-too-be senior quarterback, who is questioning his involvement in athletics) and Mitchell (a soon-to-be freshman pitcher), the film is really more of an ensemble work — featuring interwoven plots about petty social-clubs, painful initiation rituals, wanna-be political activists, drunk/high pontification, etc. The dialogue is recognizably Linklateresque (e.g. Slacker, Waking Life, Before Sunrise, etc. etc.) with characters’ conversations mixing pop-culture references with philosophy. Several early performances here — most notably Parker Posey (as a senior with a flair for vengeance), Ben Affleck (as extremely hatable former-student still relishing in his past), and especially Matthew McConaughey (as a mellow “adult” still chasing high-school girls and buying beer/weed for high-school buddies). McConaughey’s performance is fantastic here; it’s a caricature and has been remarked upon to the point of obsolescence. However, for a first-time feature-length performance, it really is pretty amazing just how much charisma and confidence he brings to this role. And, really, that’s probably the word that I would most use in describing Dazed and Confused: “confident.” Linklater’s direction and writing here are remarkably self-assured for such an early effort, eschewing traditional “plot” for something more meandering in pacing and progression. [Although I don’t know this for certain, I would be shocked if this wasn’t inspired in some way by George Lucas’s superb American Graffiti.] The result is, perhaps paradoxically, a work that feels particular and universal, one that feels impermanent and timeless simultaneously. Easily one of the very best “high-school” movies ever made and well-deserving of its reputation.
A Scanner Darkly (2006) – There are few science-fiction writers whose fictions have been so successfully adapted to film as Philip K. Dick — the original creator behind great movies like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, and Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. These are all, to my mind, successful science-fiction films and well deserving of their respect and admiration among fans. However, I’m a little surprised that Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly isn’t often mentioned among that company, as it really is a fantastic work in its own way. Featuring performances by Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr., and Woody Harrelson, A Scanner Darkly introduces us to “Bob Arctor” (Reeves) — a police officer who has gone undercover in an attempt to find a local supplier of the extremely addictive Substance D, a drug that creates intense hallucinations and slowly strips its users of their sense of identity, reality, etc. etc. Of course, Bob (or is it “Fred”? or is it “Bruce”?) himself becomes hooked on the drug and, with the use of his police-issued “scramble suit” that conceals his identity, loses his grip on whether the role he’s playing is his true self and which role (as an addict, as an officer, as something else?) is really real. Reeves’s dead-panned, wide-eyed delivery works well here, Ryder is effective as a character who may (or may not) have several secret identities herself, and both Downey Jr. and Harrelson provide a dose of drug-fueled humor as Reeves’s increasingly paranoid friends/roommates. As with much of Dick’s work, there’s definitely a sense of prescience in A Scanner Darkly — the author’s warnings about technology, corporatization, surveillance, substance-abuse, etc. and the effects that these things can have on one’s autonomy. [While the end of the film feels inevitable in a way, it remains powerful nonetheless because it feels more personal than some of the other movies based on Dick’s writings.] And Linklater’s direction — particularly the choice of rotoscoping animation, which is the best example of the technique that I’ve ever seen — captures the thematic complexity and character uncertainty quite memorably. A Scanner Darkly is almost certainly a film that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate, but it rewards viewers willing to re-watch.
School of Rock (2003) – Linklater’s School of Rock may be his second-most widely viewed film (behind Dazed and Confused) but, for some reason, there are a lot of people who seem to really dislike this movie. I don’t quite know why, as it’s pretty good! My guess is that it probably has something to do with a general dislike of Jack Black, who is, understandably, not everyone’s cup of tea and who has been not-so-great in a number of films. But…BUT he’s actually pretty great in this particular role, as it’s one that’s well suited for his mixture of bombastic physical energy and vocal commitment. For those who’ve not seen School of Rock, the basic premise is that unreliable wannabe rocker Dewey Finn (Black) impersonates his roommate and teacher-in-training Ned Schneebly (Mike White) in order to get a substitute teaching gig at a prestigious school, which will provide him with rent money. Finn’s original plan of coasting through the semester changes, however, when he discovers that his students are, in fact, highly accomplished musicians — at which point, Dewey decides to form a new rock band, teaching his students about the history and performance of that particular musical genre. The film features solid supporting performances from White, Joan Cusack, and Sarah Silverman who play their character types effectively enough. The child actors in the film aren’t the best actors; however, they’re not terrible either — and, besides, they were hired because of their musical abilities anyway. [All of the child actors here actually play their respective instruments and/or do the vocal work in the film.] But, really, as mentioned above, this is a Jack Black vehicle; and he performs his role admirably. Overall, a very enjoyable, highly entertaining family-film with lots of small references to various songs, bands, etc. that music fans can appreciate as well. A movie steeped in genuine sentiment.
Bernie (2011) – Part true-crime, part black-comedy, and part mockumentary, Linklater’s Bernie is a “based-on-a-true-story” type film about a small-town murder in East Texas. The plot revolves around a kind and community-minded mortician named Bernie, who, to everyone’s surprise, befriends an infamously cantankerous millionaire widow named Marjorie. However, their friendship slowly devolves into an abusive relationship in which Marjorie treats Bernie like a servant — eventually culminating with Bernie killing Marjorie in her own home. While the tone, humor, and Texas setting are consistent from Linklater’s other films, Bernie distinguishes itself formally / stylistically from the rest of the director’s oeuvre, with its mix of reenactments and interviews. [In fact, some of those “interviewed” in this film are actual townspeople from Carthage, Texas who knew both the real-life Bernie and the real-life Marjorie.] In terms of performances, Jack Black once again does an admirable job with the gregariously polite and dramatic Bernie, while Shirley MacLaine turns in one of her best roles in years as the truly unlikeable Marjorie. And Matthew McConaughey gives a fun, engaging supporting performance as a local district-attorney with a flair for justice and spinning yarns. [This relatively tiny role actually helped to jumpstart McConaughey’s career revival, preceding the work that would follow in the following years like Dallas Buyers Club, True Detective, and Mud.] A movie that stayed on my Netflix queue for a long time (too long) before I watched it, Bernie is a bewildering work — exploring a horrific crime and the subsequent cover-up (albeit with unorthodox characters) in a way that is both engaging and, oddly, charming.
The Underrated One
One could probably make a case here for A Scanner Darkly or Bernie — after all, the former is one of the best Philip K. Dick filmic adaptations out there (and gets mostly ignored) and Bernie is a better than expected comedy / true-crime film with great performances. Boyhood was critically admired upon release; however, I don’t think it gets its full credit as one of the greatest (and most ambitious) films of the 2000s. Both Waking Life (2001) and Slacker (1991) are overly long, but they’re both worth seeing at least once — the former features some interesting animation, the latter introduces the casual, conversational style that features heavily in Linklater’s later films. But my selection here is Linklater’s most recent, Last Flag Flying (2017). A spiritual but not actual sequel to Hal Ashby’s wonderful The Last Detail (1973), Linklater’s film explores three Vietnam veterans whose lives are forever linked by a shameful past decision and whose lives are, once again, brought back together decades later when one of them faces a family tragedy related to America’s War on Terror. While the film is a beat too long (like many of the director’s films), the three principle actors — Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, and Steve Carell — all embody their respective characters exceptionally well. Not only does the trio have fantastic on-screen chemistry, each of the actors is able to serve as a foil to the others and each can fluctuate between moments of drama and comedy. An film well worth watching if you’re a fan of Ashby’s original (of course) but also if you’re interested in post-9/11 war texts, as the movie effectively balances difficult topics of family, friendship, grief, truth, and patriotism.
The One to Avoid
For me, there are a few contenders here for “The One to Avoid.” While everyone else seems to like Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” (e.g. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, & Before Midnight) for reasons that I can’t quite comprehend, I found them to be mostly forgettable at best. Bad News Bears isn’t a “bad” movie per se; however, it simply has no reason to exist — after all, there’s no conceivable way that it could possibly compete with the original, which is a sports-film classic. Based on a play that might be interesting to see performed on the stage, Tape — with its limited setting and camcorder aesthetics — feels akin to a thought exercise more so than a working film in my opinion. But, ultimately, my pick here is The Newton Boys (1998). Not only a lackluster film, it just doesn’t do anything new for the genre of “crime/antihero” flicks. Moreover, whereas films like Slacker, Waking Life, and Everybody Wants Some!! have their problems, they at least feel uniquely Linklater-like; meanwhile, The Newton Boys feels like a movie that anyone could’ve made. [Me and Orson Welles is another one that feels anti-Linklater in many ways, although that particular effort is better in its execution.] So…yeah. Unless you’re trying to re-live some 1990s era teenage heartthrob thing or whatever, you can almost certainly skip The Newton Boys.
The Place to Start
This is one of the easiest “Place to Start” picks that I’ve ever had. Start with Dazed and Confused (1993). While I don’t think it’s Linklater’s best film (though it’s close to that distinction), it’s pretty great and deserves its spot in the hearts and minds of my generation of cinephiles. If you enjoy Dazed and Confused (and it’s hard to imagine that one wouldn’t), then you might think about watching School of Rock, Boyhood, or even one of “The Before Trilogy.” [Personally, don’t care for the three “Before” films, but I know that others like them quite a bit.] I would advise working your way up to A Scanner Darkly, which really needs to watched a few times to piece everything together.
The Final Word
There are few directors — e.g. Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, Joel & Ethan Coen, etc. — who have been as influential to cinephiles of my own generation (i.e. those really getting into film-viewership in the late 1990s and early 2000s) as Richard Linklater. It’s a bit weird going back and re-watching all of his films, as some of those films have subsequently diminished over time while others have continued to flourish, in my estimation. I admire that his works are so clearly grounded in place, and that this place isn’t the typical New York / California cityscape that we’re presented with in film/television. [Can you even believe that stories and events happen in places other than the coasts? I know…crazy, right?] Moreover, nearly all of his films have a casual “ease” to them that makes them highly approachable and engaging, especially for first-time viewers. Lastly, I’m intrigued by the way that Linklater seems to emphasize film as an art-form working in time — i.e. so many of his movies take place in a single, concentrated span of time (e.g. Dazed and Confused, the “Before Trilogy,” etc.) while his best film (i.e. Boyhood) explores the passage of time in ways that are emotionally evocative and formally innovative. A director who tells stories like a friend would, I think.