No director loves his characters more than Mr. Richard Linklater. With a career spanning almost thirty years, Linklater submits that, above all else, character is key when making a successful movie. From 1991’s Slacker to this coming week’s Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater is able to sell a moment and a feeling better than almost anyone else working today.
Take just three movies Linklater has made during his career: Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! (I know the majority of the world hasn’t had the opportunity to see the latter film yet, but please trust me when I say that it fits in perfectly with the aforementioned). These three movies contain no discernible plot of any kind and have come to define the “hangout movie” subgenre. Now, a director could make a music video and have it be considered a hangout movie but that’s just the surface of what Linklater does in these films. He imbues each and every character, no matter what kind of grubby douche they may actually be, with a gentle humanity that allows the viewer to understand this person’s corner of the universe. Matthew McConaughey’s iconic role of Wooderson is, for all intents and purposes, a creepy loser still hanging on to past glories. But Linklater’s writing (and McConaughey’s performance, giving us an early glimpse of the actor we’re treated with today) doesn’t allow the character to fall within such easy trappings. Wooderson is gentle, never actually harming anyone despite his weird come-ons and his easy smile and delivery puts us on his side even if we know he’s the odd man in the group.
This sort of character work shines not just through Linklater’s hangout movies, but also in his slightly more plotted entries. Films like Bernie and School of Rock both follow Jack Black playing versions of a person that society tries very hard to keep at the fringes. When it comes to Bernie (which is an honest-to-goodness true story), society literally locks Bernie Tiede up for life in jail. In both movies, we follow these men who are the nicest murderer in the world and a sincere screw-up of a human, using a group of kids to further his own sad “career”. But in these films, Linklater cuts deep into what makes these people tick, never shying away from their ugliness but never reveling in it. Linklater, like the characters he writes and portrays, doesn’t have an evil bone in his body and even when evil things take place, they come from a point of misunderstanding. These are truly nuanced stories with deep, heavy meaning that still feel like things you want to be friends with.
The level of filmmaking craft in these films alone should secure one’s entry into a filmmaker Hall of Fame but Richard Linklater also made four masterpieces in what I would call his “Time” movies. The trilogy that is Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) focus on two characters as they weave in and out of each others’ lives just as we weave in and out of them ourselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are exactly the slightly romanticized versions of ourselves we all wish to be. They fall into each other so seamlessly and so deeply that when one movie is over, we don’t even think about visiting these characters again, our time with them having expired. It is the freshest breath of air when after two nine year periods, we get to drop back in on these two people and see that they’ve evolved just like we do. It isn’t always pretty and it’s almost never easy but this is what it means to live and Linklater never loses a step throughout the process.
The fourth “Time” film is the very divisive Boyhood, a movie shot over the span of twelve years, chronicling in non-documentary form, the maturation of young Mason. The immense dedication it takes to make something like this aside, Boyhood is another movie where the easy trappings of narrative cinema don’t apply and we’re given real moments in an almost real life.
When it comes to deciding who enters the pantheon of Monkeys Fighting Robots’ Greatest Filmmakers, the discussion must involve greater substance than the likability of a director’s oeuvre. That said, Richard Linklater makes some of the most innately likable movies one may ever see. What most astounds me about Linklater is that it all feels so effortless. The easygoing nature of his films and the characters within them are no easy task and undoubtedly come from his actual soul. In this world where technical whiz-bangery and spectacle have taken over our cinemas, my mind eases knowing Richard Linklater is out there creating sumptuous mirror worlds of our own and characters with which we will always want to hang.
You just gotta keep livin’ man. L-I-V-I-N.
“Undisputed Collection of Greatest Filmmakers” is a semi-regular column that attempts to place today’s working directors into a pantheon of greats, only surrounded in fellowship by talent of equally unparalleled measure. This collection is non-refundable.
Check out the previous directors enshrined in this collection (with more to come!):