Art & Culture

How Richard Linklater has mastered concept of time in his films

Vikram Johri
Vikram JohriNov 18, 2014 | 13:44

How Richard Linklater has mastered concept of time in his films

Richard Linklater's Boyhood is a significant departure from the trilogy that won him global acclaim. There are no long shots of people talking, no sense of the pervasive risk-taking that his characters are known for. At the end of Before Sunset (2004), we do not know if Jesse (Ethan Hawke) misses his flight. He and Celine (Julie Delpy) have met years after the magical day that was the subject of Before Sunrise (1995). It is only the third part of the trilogy Before Midnight (2014) that informs us that Jesse not only missed that flight but that he made a new life with Celine in Paris.


When, in Before Sunset, Jesse catches Celine's eye in Shakespeare & Company, the Paris landmark he is visiting to promote his book, his impish smile masks the torrent of longing coursing through him. He and Celine are meeting for the first time in years, yet for viewerswho have known the couple since Before Sunrise, it would seem that not a moment has passed between them. There is still the bittersweet yearning of time constrained; there is still that unspoken space that they share so comfortably. 

By the time Before Midnight comes around, the couple is married and settled. Concomitantly, some of the early promise of their romance has dwindled. They have finally arrived, as it were, but their arrival does not have the glow of their love. They fight a lot more, for one, and while they also make up, one can't escape the feeling that they have compromised. The viewer leaves that movie vaguely disquieted. If one of our most electric cinematic couples must also settle in undesirable domesticity, what hope for us commoners?

What Boyhood shares with the Before trilogy is the passage of time. Who can take issue with Linklater's penchant for ageing his characters on film, not via makeup or time shifts, but actually ageing them? Part of the sadness built into the Before trilogy is the soft hardening not just of Jesse and Celine’s love but also of Delpy's fresh-faced beauty. Linklater employs the same conceit in Boyhood with the protagonist Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, ageing before our eyes. 


But there is a difference. Linklater shot Boyhood over 13 years, so what happens naturally in the Before trilogy is compressed into one film here - a bravura achievement not merely for its requirement of tremendous amounts of patience on everybody's part but also for sheer luck, since to stake a project on characters ageing naturally in a world racked with violence is nothing short of a prayer.

We meet Mason as a five-year-old gazing into the sky, and we bid him goodbye as he stares into the horizon, an 18-year-old who weighs on things beyond his age. In the interim we live his life, his triumphs and disappointments, but mostly just the cruel act of growing up. In an early scene he asks his father, known only as Dad (Ethan Hawke), if elves are for real. He already suspects they are not but that's not the point. The point is to navigate the disappointment of their non-existence without losing your mind. 

Mason will learn about several non-elves in the course of the film. The security of childhood is one, as he moves from one broken house to another. (His mother and father are great with him and his sister, but can't stand one another.) The giddy promise of romance is another, as the girl he truly cares for dumps him. There are no dramatic moments and everything happens as it does in real life, with a whimper whose bang is heard days, maybe years later.


Towards the end Mason, now a lanky, somewhat uncertain young man, is headed for college. Mom (Patricia Arquette) places the first picture he clicked (he is a talented budding photographer) into his box of items. She had done this before too, but Mason had taken it out. He is fresh out of a relationship one of whose highlights was the artistic pictures he took of his girlfriend. Maybe it's a phase or maybe he is just not sentimental.

But his mother and he talk about it, and she convinces him to put the picture back in. When he returns to the living room, she is sobbing passionately. "What is it," he asks her, but she does not know. All words will capture is her horror at things slipping by ("I got married, I had kids, I got divorced, I sent your sister to college, now I am sending you to college"). Life must be lived forward even though, as she says, "I had thought it would be more."

Just before the movie ends, Mason goes back to his dad and asks him: "What is the point of anything?" By now he is big enough to know the truth about elves but not cynical enough to lose faith completely. He is not a happy person, but then perhaps, none of us truly are. The most we can hope for ourselves, and for Mason, is to find comfort when we need it.

Last updated: November 18, 2014 | 13:44
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy