The Films of Richard Linklater

With the release of a new trailer and a rapidly approaching general release for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood it seems apt to have a look back at his varied and interesting career.

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Richard Linklater was part of an indie film making movement in the nineties and his films have portrayed the maligned and marginalised. He’s experimented with roto-scoping in both A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life and Linklater often pushes for intriguing narratives that question the contemporary condition.

Often Linklater’s work is set within a 24-hour period and the theme is “the youth rebellion continuum.” As a director and writer Linklater initially had a focus on the generational rites and passages of the early nineties and his films showed a compassionate perspective on the youthful experience. Many of Linklater’s films also introduced talented young actors to a wider audience. (Ben Affleck in Dazed and Confused is one example.)

So to consider Linklater better, and perhaps get an idea of how well Boyhood will do, let’s consider some of his best work over the last twenty odd years. This list is likely debatable and there will be exclusions that some readers will take exception to. Regardless though Linklater is a filmmaker to be aware of and his back catalogue provides numerous films for you to enjoy.

Slacker (1991)

Made for less than $23,000 and set in Linklater’s native Austin, Texas, Slacker follows a group of social outcasts and misfits mostly in the twenty-something age range. On the whole it’s a directionless, virtually plot less account of 1990s youth culture. The film uses a series of linear vignettes that link the often disparate characters together. This is a technique that Linklater revisited and perfected in his later film Waking Life.

Slacker moves seamlessly from scene to scene and the characters are introduced randomly as the narrative flits from person to person. Many of the characters embody clear stylistic and stereotypical tropes and each function as a mouthpiece for some philosophical or political perspective.

Dazed and Confused (1993)

Dazed and Confused takes place on the last day of high school in a Texan town in 1976. The cast’s populated by familiar faces – Matthew McConaughey has always been a personal favourite in this film – Dazed and Confused is a coming of age film without the requisite clichés.

This is a teen film and it shows the ups and downs of high school life. The hierarchy that won’t matter after graduation is in full force and the upperclassmen are evangelically hazing the freshmen. This is a film about teenagers and it never patronises them. Instead it shows their everyday trials as real and tangible, and within context their actions are completely understandable. Kids are smart, intelligent, and often bored. Dazed and Confused charts the story of kids on the cusp of adulthood and the fear and excitement that that transition inspires.

The Before Trilogy

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This trilogy is Linklater’s most endearing work and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy star in this touching romance. The first film, Before Sunrise (1995) is set in the early nineties where a young man and woman meet on a European train. They decide to get off in Vienna and spend one evening together. Neither believe that they’ll ever see each other again so the evening is infused with a seize the moment attitude.

Before Sunset (2004) takes place nine years after the first film in both narrative time and real time. Throughout Linklater’s career he often explores the idea of time (Boyhood of course being a good example) and the Before Trilogy has a specific reliance on time as a concept. The plot of Before Sunset takes place in Paris and the young couple (older now) bump into each other again. Once more their time is constrained and constricted by exterior forces and they only have one night together to reminisce and catch up.

The final part of the trilogy, Before Midnight (2013) again takes place nine years on. Now however the couple are together and on holiday with their kids and the film is a much more realist portrayal of a romance. There are three parts to what is in actuality only one story and each part of the trilogy explores the legacy of time and how it changes people.

One of the strengths of this trilogy is the fact that the characters age in time with each film. This planning really pays off and this trilogy is affecting, heart warming, and honest. The scripting is pitch perfect and completely natural. If you haven’t seen these films yet look them up, they’re really worth watching.

The Newton Boys (1998)

This is another film starring Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey showing that actors like to work and collaborate with Linklater. The plot follows the Newton gang, four brothers known for being the most successful bank robbers of all time due to their methodical planning and their aversion to violence.

Tape (2001)

Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman star in this slight film that most people haven’t seen. Tape is set in a motel room and it never leaves this setting. The three childhood friends who occupy the motel room compound the claustrophobic setting further. They drink and dissect painful shared memories from their high school years.

Waking Life (2001)

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This is Linklater’s most abstract film and the scenes bleed into one another in a similar way to Slacker. Waking Life is the first roto-scoped film by Linklater and he used different animators for each scene. This makes the narrative feel incredibly fractured and disparate.

The narrative is simple and it follows a man shuffling through a lucid or waking dream. He meets various people and with each he discusses the meanings and the purposes of life. The people he talks to all have different, sometimes contradictory opinions on what it means to be alive within the contemporary condition.

Never didactic, Waking Life explores what it means to be human all within a lucid dream. It’s a film that discusses but never postulates and as a visceral experience goes it’s really meditative.

School of Rock (2003)

Jack Black’s original outing in a Linklater film sees a much more mainstream direction in terms of the narrative. More a film for the kids, the story follows a failing rock musician in need of cash who poses as a teacher at a prestigious private school. He attempts to turn his young class into a viable rock band and enters them in a local battle of the bands.

A Scanner Darkly (2006)

A Scanner Darkly is an adaption of a Philip K. Dick book of the same name. Linklater employs roto-scoping and a number of big name actors to transfer the book to the silver screen. There’s great fidelity in this adaptation and a surprisingly nuanced performance from Keanu Reaves as the protagonist. Robert Downy Jr is also in this film pre his renaissance.

The narrative is about an undercover cop who becomes addicted to a deadly new drug. The more of this drug that he takes the less of himself that he knows. A Scanner Darkly is an interesting psychological sci-fi about the nature of identity.

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Me and Orson Welles stars Zac Effron as a teenager cast in the Mercury Theatre production of Julius Caesar. This teenager gets to work with a young Orson Welles in what’s likely the role of a lifetime.

This a Linklater film like School of Rock and it’s slick, well produced, and far from his independent earlier work. But Linklater knows how to make a film regardless of its genre or niche and Me and Orson Welles is convincing film making.

Bernie (2011)

The second time that Jack Black and Linklater collaborated, Bernie is a zany black comedy about an affable mortician. This mortician strikes up a close friendship with a local wealthy widow but when she becomes controlling Bernie has to go to great extremes to free himself from her clutches.

Boyhood (2014)

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Boyhood is a return perhaps to Linklater’s more independent and experimental roots. Once more an exploration of the nature of time, Boyhood charts the life of a young man (shot in real time) from the age of 5 to the age of 18. This is an experimental piece and one that’s as exciting as it is unusual; Boyhood looks like a return to Linklater’s early film making days.

There’s a diversity to Linklater’s filmic output and one that shows he’s a director that resists definition. From some of the more blockbuster-orientated films to the early indie low budget work, Linklater’s eclectic career is one that has an emphasis on the filmic craft. Revisit some of his films and get to know a director that has yet to receive the full-blown appreciation that he deserves.

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