Richard Linklater’s movies have always used language to explore the nature of relationships. (I’m talking here about the films he’s written and directed, not those on which he’s only served as director; while something like Tape has a Linklater feel to its premise, there’s only so much authorial intent one can read into Bad News Bears without lapsing into parody.) The films that are really his have been all about words: how we use them as a weapon or a balm, as a shield or an escape. The three movies he’s made about one couple’s exploration of life and love — 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset, and now Before Midnight — are signposts for his journey as a filmmaker and for his maturing worldview about how we always say the hardest things to those we value the most. Before Sunrise was flush with the promise of life as a blank page, while Before Sunset was more muted and bittersweet, a look at life as a book half-written. Before Midnight might not be the final installment in the series, but it’s the one with the greatest sense of finality, and accordingly, the one most in touch with the loss and fear that can shock you into realizing that your life has not worked out the way you wanted it to.
The film’s shaggy structure mirrors its predecessors’, unfolding at an amiable pace over the course of an afternoon and evening on the Greek coast. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) are still the same people they were 18 years ago, which is to say they’re still flawed people trying to balance their better intentions against bad habits. Jesse loves the son he had by another woman and wishes he got to see the boy more, but he’s also still naive and a little manipulative when it comes to relational politics. Celine’s passion and love have now spread to the two young daughters she’s had with Jesse, but she’s still quick to spar or see the worst in a situation. That’s a daring concept on its own — to show what happens after the credits roll on a romantic drama, to dig into the dirt and compromise that comes with years living together — but it only works because Linklater and his cast execute the story with the nuance and frankness they brought to the first two films. Over the course of an afternoon with friends and an evening by themselves, Jesse and Celine are drawn into wandering conversations about the nature of love and the duty of marriage. On paper it sounds abstract at best or dull at worst, but it’s neither. It’s bracing and real precisely because of how much is at stake, and how believably loving and wounded these people alternately become before our eyes.
The film is also where Linklater gets to return to the overt style that he brought to his early films that’s largely absent from his later work: lengthy takes, scenes as vignettes, etc. This is, again, a movie about the power of dialogue, and Linklater is never in any rush to end a scene or a moment before its time. As a result, it’s the rhythms of the language that build and diffuse tension more than music or editing or anything else. Early in the film, there’s a series of fantastic long takes — minutes each — as Celine and Jesse drive through the countryside to their friends’ house, talking about jobs and life and all the minutia of marriage as their daughters sleep in the backseat. The script glides between subjects, absolutely nailing the way you can find yourself talking about work in one breath and arguing about in-laws in the next. Hawke and Delpy feel deeper into these characters than ever, more sunk in and grounded, and there’s not a happy or heated moment they don’t totally sell.
The script’s only weaknesses are its too-cute nods to the earlier films. It’s understandable that Jesse and Celine would want to reflect on their life together, but it’s less natural for such reminisces to manifest as metafictional nods to movies we all know we’ve seen. The gimmick of the second film was that Jesse had written a novel about the events of the first, and here again he’s written a book about what happened in the second film all while workshopping story ideas for a new piece. His books are titled This Time and That Time, with jokey references about how people can keep them straight, a clear goof on the easy interchangeability of “sunrise” and “sunset” in the film titles. Quirks like this break the spell of the story, and worse, they feel like insecurity, almost as if Linklater’s afraid to return to the well without joking about the process.
Such winks are blessedly few, though. And there’s one callback that feels real: when Jesse and Celine are walking through town to a hotel and he asks “How long has it been since we wandered around bullshitting?” It’s a reference to the first film, yes, but it works because it’s really one of those things people say to each other at a certain point in a relationship: Do you remember when we did this? When this defined us? It’s been 18 years since Before Sunrise, and Jesse and Celine show every minute of those two decades in the way they move around each other. Because as important as spoken language is to Linklater, it’s body language that often finds his characters at their most revealing. The film’s final act is a return to the elemental chemistry that started the whole story, as Jesse and Celine work through their issues alone in a hotel room, and Linklater beautifully choreographs their conversation as a series of elliptical orbits. They come together and move apart as they alternately fight and mend, using a million tiny movements to express displeasure, hope, confusion, or acceptance. These are small, fleeting moments, gone before we even realize they exist, but that’s part of the point. Life is built from a billion such choices, and Before Midnight is a chronicle of what happens when you start to pull those choices apart.
If I’ve sounded alternately vague or blase about the plot, passing it off as a series of talks in a random assortment of rooms, it’s only because I’m wary of untangling the web Linklater’s woven. On one level, “nothing” happens here; on another, everything does. These are whole lives on screen, and Linklater creates decades of back story through judicious use of small phrases and characters that feel lived in. It’s rare and a little harrowing to see a film that so bluntly and accurately deals with a marriage. Throughout the series, Linklater’s found ways to talk about all people by focusing closely on just two, and he succeeds again here. There’s actually a third type of language on display here, and it’s one Linklater and his cast are so good at using that you almost miss it: the subtext and the things unsaid. Jesse and Celine are never really talking about what they’re actually saying. They’re simply trying to get at the truth from a million angles, and at best they manage to stumble into it. When Jesse says he misses his son, he’s really asking Celine if she wants to move; when Celine asks Jesse what he thinks of a job offer she just got, she’s really asking herself if she’s still the same person she was before motherhood. Hawke and Delpy are expert in these moments, so comfortable and jagged and curious that they might as well be people you see at a party and talk about on the ride home. It’s that unspoken nature of love’s promise and peril that defines the film, and it’s what makes it so deceptively good. The real moral isn’t so much in the film but in the fact that there have been three of them. Love is never finished, and life is never as clean as the stories we tell ourselves. If that robs us of a certain resolution, perhaps it’s enough that those moments let us sit back and look at one another and say: we almost didn’t make it, but we got here. Now let’s keep going.