Slowly and quietly, Richard Linklater has become one of the greats of contemporary American cinema. His understated style and rich thematics get at the heart of life for a white male in North America. While no one would ever consider Linklater one of the most rigorous or stylistic filmmakers working today, his films have a quiet power that sneaks up on you. They’re pleasurable experiences in the moment and profound experiences in retrospect. Few filmmakers understand so innately the fundamental characteristic of film: that it is a medium defined by time. Richard Linklater is the cinema’s great purveyor of time and its effects on our understanding of life and its defining moments.
Richard Linklater was born in Houston, Texas in 1960 to Diane Margaret and Charles Linklater. He’s lived in Texas his entire life, going to high school in Huntsville and Bellaire, and attending Sam Houston State University on a baseball scholarship. He eventually dropped out to work on an oil rig. During his post-university time, he developed a passion for film and eventually moved to Austin to pursue filmmaking. He founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 along with Lee Daniel and spent the mid and late eighties making short films to practice his technique.
He technically made his feature film debut in 1988 with It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, a ultra-low-budget road movie shot on Super 8mm and starring himself in the lead role. However, the film never received a wide release and remains little seen (although it is included as a bonus feature on the Criterion Collection release of Slacker). Slacker (1991) essentially serves as Linklater’s debut, codifying his filmmaking style and narrative looseness, and introducing him to the larger film world. True to its title, Slacker is a series of vignettes of counterculture life occurring in Austin over the course of one day. The film has no plot and no central protagonist. Each scene flows into the next by having characters cross paths. There is no fixed structure to any of the scenes, which allows the characters to ramble on . While Slacker lacks the elegance of Linklater’s later work, it does embody how loosely structured his films are. It also shows that he favours honest characterizations and contemplative themes over character arcs and rigid lessons. Slacker made minor waves within the American independent filmmaking community and garnered Linklater a cult following.
Linklater capitalized on this cult following with his follow-up, Dazed and Confused (1993). Inspired by his own experiences at Huntsville High School, the film follows several high schoolers on the last day of classes in 1976. Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the star of the football team, suffers an identity crisis after his coach forces him to sign a waiver saying he won’t do any drugs over the summer, pondering whether he even wants to be the football star anymore. Incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) deals with the torments of hazing from seniors and tries to fit into the new high school crowd. Others, like Rory Cochrane’s stoner, Ron Slater, and Matthew McConaughey’s hangout guru, Wooderson, merely enjoy the summer day, the party at the water tower at night, and the opportunity for fun that lies before them.
While Randall and Mitch’s struggles give the film a dramatic arc, Dazed and Confused is more a hangout movie than a standard high school comedy. Like in Slacker, the film’s wide cast of characters—played by future stars; Milla Jovovich and Ben Affleck also appear, in addition to the aforementioned McConaughey—intersect with each other and the film’s focus darts across the spectrum of high school cliques. The film’s power comes in its emotional authenticity and the way that it frames nostalgia for the past. The film is not attempting to capture life as it exactly was back in 1976, but instead, as Linklater (circa 1993) remembered life in 1976 to be. Linklater uses the roughly two decades between the time the film is set in and the time of the film’s release to force audiences to consider the meaning of an event like the last day of high school that was ephemeral in the moment. Linklater’s philosophy is that you don’t recognize the significant moments of life until they’ve passed you by; that meaningful milestones happen in the periphery of daily life. Viewing Dazed and Confused with this philosophy in mind, the rash, rambling conversations and ponderings of high schoolers on the last day of school only become poignant in retrospect. Dazed and Confused enjoyed widespread critical appeal and remains one of Linklater’s definitive features to this day.
Linklater continued his exploration of the meaning of life’s peripheral moments with Before Sunrise (1995), one work from his masterful triptych. The premise is elegantly simple: Jesse (Ethan Hawke), a young American visiting Europe after college, meets Céline (Julie Delpy), a young French woman, on a train and convinces her to get off in Vienna and spend the day with him before he flies home early the next morning. Over the course of the day, they bond and discuss life and love and their future prospects. A romance blossoms, but it’s doomed to end the next morning when Jesse leaves back home to America. Much like Dazed and Confused and Slacker, Before Sunrise mainly consists of naked conversations and ramblings. Its appeal is in how insightful these conversations are and how they define Jesse and Céline as some of the most realized characters to ever grace the screen. Many films are able to capture the emotional aspects of young adulthood, but few films are able to vocalize those moments as specifically as Before Sunrise.
For example, there is a scene in Before Sunrise where Jesse discusses his discomfort with growing up. He says that he doesn’t feel like he’s living his life, and that his current life is just his younger self getting a glimpse into the future lying ahead of him. He’s having a hard time adjusting to the idea that what he’s experiencing is the real thing and that he cannot redo the life he’s already lived. It’s the sort of comment that not only captures the uncertainty of a young person moving into an unknown world as an adult, but seems ripped verbatim from the mouths of young people everywhere. It’s a statement that seems literally universal—that every young person has espoused such thoughts in exactly the same manner. Before Sunrise is full of these sorts of scenes, where Linklater’s dialogue, combined with the performances of Hawke and Delpy, create moments of stunning honesty. As the film eventually spawned two sequels, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, Before Sunrise grows more poignant in retrospect. It captures the idyllic blossoming of Jesse and Céline’s relationship, before time and circumstance would sour their views of each other, but also before a future together was thought possible. In essence, it shows their relationship in a vacuum, with a closed beginning and end. Before Sunrise garnered universal praise and won Linklater the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 45th Berlin International Film Festival.
After the unconventional trio of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, Linklater turned his attention to more conventional fare. He directed SubUrbia in 1996 and The Newton Boys in 1998. In 2001 he returned to the philosophical ramblings of his earlier features with Waking Life, a rotoscoped series of vignettes that tread similar ground as Slacker. In 2001, he also directed Tape, a drama set entirely in a motel room starring Ethan Hawke and his then-wife, Uma Thurman.
In 2003, Linklater made his biggest hit and his most commercial film-to-date, School of Rock, starring Jack Black as a man who pretends to be a substitute teacher and ends up turning his class into a rock band. While the film plays far broader than most of Linklater’s work, it’s a genuinely rousing comedy. It captures Jack Black at his most energetically appealing and allows Linklater to spread his love of classic rock to a new generation. In fact, the film’s enthusiastic love of rock music is so infectious, it inspired many a young person to go out and buy a musical instrument for themselves (this writer included).
In 2004, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy revisited Jesse and Céline with Before Sunset, which depicts one day in Paris nine years after the events of Before Sunrise. While Before Sunrise showed Jesse and Céline as young individuals with little history or baggage keeping them from conquering the future, Before Sunset shows them as people firmly in the grips of adulthood, with families and jobs and responsibilities that limit their decisions. Before Sunset plays out in real time as Jesse and Céline talk over the events of the first film and the lives they’ve lived in the interim. Its immense power relies both on its reflexive relationship with Before Sunrise and the honest ways it captures the challenges of aging and coming to terms with missed opportunities.
For viewers who saw Before Sunrise upon its release in 1995, Before Sunset was a startling experience as it showed them characters who had aged as much as they had. Before Sunset doesn’t pick up where Before Sunrise left off. It leaves a nine-year gap that is discussed, but never filled in. That gap is essential to its power, as it suggests the characters have lives that are outside the confines of their films. Rarely is it suggested that film characters age as we do and have struggles that occur when no one else is paying attention. However, this focus on what is not seen in the emotional lives of individuals is central to Linklater’s filmmaking philosophy and exploration of time’s effects on people. As with Before Sunrise, the honesty of Before Sunset is overwhelming. The film was another critical hit for Linklater and also garnered him a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which he shared along with Hawke and Delpy.
In 2005, Linklater released a remake of Bad News Bears, starring Billy Bob Thornton, which is commonly perceived as one of his weakest films. In 2006, he released two experimental films that demonstrated his broadening interests. Fast Food Nation adapts Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction work on America’s food industry into a hyperlink drama starring Patricia Arquette and Greg Kinnear. A Scanner Darkly adapts Philip K. Dick’s novel about drugs and surveillance in a near-future America. A Scanner Darkly stars Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor, a deep-cover narcotics agent trying to trace the origin of a powerful drug known as Substance D in an America where the War on Drugs was decisively lost. The film is rotoscoped, which highlights the story’s lucid nature and foreground the paranoia that torments every character. If Blade Runner (1982) and Minority Report (2002) remain the best adaptations of Philip K. Dick’s work, A Scanner Darkly is the most faithful. It captures the junkie culture that Dick lived in and best captures the paranoid, mentally-unstable worldview that his work espoused.
In 2008, Linklater made another commercial film with Me and Orson Welles, an amiable and underrated recounting of Orson Welles’s 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In 2012, he reteamed with Jack Black and McConaughey for the true crime-influenced, Bernie, which marked a career-best performance for Black.
In 2013, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy again caught up with the lives of Jesse and Céline with Before Midnight. Set nine years after Before Sunset, Before Midnight shows Jesse and Céline as middle-aged individuals on vacation in Greece with their kids. Even more than Before Sunset, Before Midnight is a film consumed by the past. Just as Jesse and Céline rehash old arguments and philosophical positions, constantly examining each other’s past actions, the film throws every scene in contrast to similar scenes in Before Sunrise and Before Midnight. The film’s emotional effect is pronounced as a result of seeing this once-youthful and romantic couple become bitter, bickering individuals who seem to have forgotten the optimism of their past. Similar to Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Before Midnight enjoyed critical adoration and garnered another Best Adapted Screenplay for Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy.
In 2014, Linklater released his definitive film: Boyhood. Shot over the course of 12 years so as to capture the real life aging of its cast and the changing of the world around them, Boyhood tells a simple story of a boy’s life from six to 18. The boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), lives a mundane life. We see him play around with his friends, get his head shaved, growing a passion for photography, or visit Austin with a teenage girlfriend. Years flow into each other imperceptibly. We only notice the time change because the characters noticeably age. The big moments like his first kiss or losing his virginity are missing. To Linklater, every first kiss and every first sexual experience is essential the same. To him, the particulars of an individual’s life—the way their mundane moments differ from that of another person’s—are what makes that life special.
More interesting than Mason’s childhood are the lives of his parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. We witness Arquette make frequent bad decisions with men at the same time that she grows into her own professionally. With Hawke, we see a young, irresponsible man (not dissimilar from his Jesse) mature into a loving father and devoted family man. Boyhood lacks some of the overwhelming emotional power that a film highlighting the universal moments of childhood might capture, but it remains a singular cinematic experience. The film embodies Linklater’s obsession with time and the invisible ways in which the world changes around us. It essentially captures many of the thematic concerns of the Before trilogy in one film. Boyhood is Linklater’s most lauded film. It won universal praise from critics and audiences, and was nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It also won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Patricia Arquette.
Linklater returned to lighter fare with Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), a spiritual-sequel to Dazed and Confused. Set in 1980 over the last weekend before college starts, the film follows the members of a college baseball team as they party and bond and compete with each other before “real life” begins. In many ways, Everybody Wants Some!! is a college sex comedy, but unlike films like Revenge of the Nerds, Everybody Wants Some!! achieves poignancy in addition to being a great party film. Interspersed with the characters’ hedonistic antics are contemplative conversations about competition and focus and finding your identity. It’s ultimately a film about the precipice of adulthood and the last great gasp of irresponsiblity.
Richard Linklater has several films in the works and as he is only reaching the midpoint of his career, it’s safe to assume he’ll only improve as a director. He’s a special filmmaker whose influence on independent filmmaking has been quiet but consistent. He has never truly broken through to the mainstream, nor has he shown much desire to. He remains an independent filmmaker obsessed with the ways that time defines our lives and the ways that film can capture time better than any other artform. Richard Linklater understands that the definitive aspect of film is its reliance on time: that you can only see one frame at a time and that one frame follows another. He mines this reliance like no other filmmaker. He has provided a singular canon that demonstrates cinema’s definitive ability to capture time’s passing.