Linklater savors ideas and theories—sometimes sharp and compelling, other times a teensy bit dopey—with the open heart and absence of cynicism that only autodidacts seem capable of mustering. He drops a casual reference to Rupert Sheldrake in a director's commentary track. Yes, Waking Life tackles the sorts of epistemological questions (are we characters in each other’s dreams?) you likely grew irritated with by the second week of your college epistemology class. But Linklater manages to address them forthrightly and unpretentiously, with a sort of windblown, Texas mojo that is less faculty lounge twaddle than campfire tale. At least two of Linklater’s films make reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses (another 24-hour narrative) and, like Joyce with Leopold Bloom, Linklater seems intent on finding the heroic within the quotidian. He celebrates small-town philosophers, high school gods and goddesses, and nobodies who step outside the culture and do their own thing.
To be sure, his résumé is littered with films that fail to achieve orbit. Both SubUrbia and Tape are adapted from plays, and add little value to their source material. (Strangely, both also feature small-town prodigal sons—men who escape the boonies, achieve some measure of creative success, and then make a return visit to mixed reviews from their high school pals. One wonders whether Linklater endured a scarring East Texas homecoming at some point.) Fast Food Nation drones along and never quite makes us care that we're eating crap meat and exploiting illegal immigrants to butcher it. Me and Orson Welles unwisely places faith in the acting of Zac Efron.
If there is a consistent weakness in Linklater's directing—beyond his haphazard, visually disappointing aesthetic (it’s hard to name an arresting image from any of his films, other than every single shot of Julie Delpy’s face)—it's that he is incapable of conveying menace. The Newton Boys, for example, is about a team of armed bank robbers who end up in prison, and yet the film unspools as a jaunty road trip. Bernie manages to turn cold-blooded murder into lighthearted joshing. His films never crescendo, never scare or jolt. Linklater has suggested that Bernie is his East Texas version of Fargo. But it lacks that movie's ratcheting tension and bloody wood chipper. Linklater has zero desire to stage a graphic re-creation of a murder. He’s just too darn amiable, and his films amble along like a daydreaming ranch hand. In Bernie, his true interest again lies in creating a protagonist-free structure, telling the story through talking-head interviews that capture the recollections of drawling townspeople.
Increasingly, in the latter half of his career, Linklater has experimented with actual talking-head documentaries. Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach profiles the University of Texas’ Augie Garrito, the best college baseball coach of all time. Linklater uses the film mostly as an excuse to delve into the spiritual aspects of baseball—the clearing of the mind, the even-keeled approach to the long season, perfection through repetition, making peace with perpetual failure. But then Linklater has always had the soul of a documentarian. He loves personal stories and revelations—they are the building blocks of Slacker and Waking Life. Even Before Sunrise/Sunset seem to spring forth largely from the autobiographies of Linklater and his actors, Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Those films are as romantic as movies ever get, but are also a unique project in the annals of sequeldom: The decade that separates the films brings a depth to the characters that stems from the real-life maturation of the actors. (Linklater is also working on a mysterious 12-year project in which he records a single actor starting at age 7 and maturing through puberty and adolescence.)
Like a regional documentarian subsisting on grants, Linklater has scrambled to keep working on his own terms. He keeps things cheap, making two- and three-character movies. He employs clever tricks to subvert the need for special effects—the rotoscoping of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly allowed him to achieve big-budget visual ideas for very little cash, with the initial filming done on cheap video and then later tarted up by animators. By pushing costs down, and staying in Austin, Linklater has maintained remarkable indie freedom. He refuses to be pigeonholed, ranging from romance to sci-fi and everything in between. He is the eternal outsider: Even his children's films, Bad News Bears and School of Rock, ultimately teach kids to harbor reflexive scorn for the establishment. I’d guess Linklater made these films in part because he’d become a father, and in part to remind folks that he’s still capable of helming multiplex fare. But they’re also just a damn good baseball movie and even better rock-and-roll flick.
The first character we see in Slacker is the director himself, musing over alternate realities, wondering what might have happened had he stayed at the bus station instead of hopping in the taxi that carries him into Austin and sets the film in motion. Surely, he can envision himself still working out on that oil rig, his film career a fantasy out of a lucid dream. Linklater owns a Bally Fireball pinball machine—the kind with a spinning disk in the middle that launches the ball on unpredictable trajectories—and it, and other pinball machines, have popped up in the background of a few of his movies. With its strange combination of vigilant intention and random fate, pinball might be the perfect metaphor for Linklater’s cinematic project.
See Seth Stevenson's rankings of Richard Linklater's movies.