Before Sunrise, the third major film by Richard Linklater, opens with an implicit hypothetical question: Based on a chance encounter and some promising chit-chat, would you impulsively get off a train with a handsome, yammering stranger? Both qualities are amplified when that stranger is played by Ethan Hawke in the mid-1990s. God, what a beautiful, insufferable son of a bitch he was! Jesse, Hawke’s character in Sunrise, doesn’t radiate the weapons-grade smugness of Troy, the prototypical Gen-Xer he played the year before in Reality Bites; he softens that disaffection into a mix of skepticism and spirited pontificating. But Jesse’s a little too confident for his more self-deprecating remarks to really stick.
Despite (or because of?) Jesse’s dorm-ready musings, Celine (Julie Delpy) decides in favor of continuing the conversation. So did Linklater; he would go on to make seven more movies with Hawke—including two sequels to Before Sunrise (and a cameo side-quel for the characters in Waking Life), along with the similarly decades-spanning Boyhood. Their working relationship stands at 27 years and counting.
Plenty of the other actor-director pairs I’ve covered over the past six years and change of this column span a similar length of time together (as do many of the pairs I have on my master Word doc, patiently awaiting the next incarnation of Together Again, whenever and wherever it may be). Leonardo DiCaprio may still seem like Martin Scorsese’s newer muse, but in Scorsese/De Niro terms, he’s now a lot closer to Casino than Taxi Driver. The youthful-seeming Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman are approaching a quarter-century of working together. Hell, one of the most recent collaborations I’ve written about, between Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler, is nearly a decade old at this point: Fruitvale Station came out in 2013—the same year as Before Midnight, the possibly final film in Linklater’s Before trilogy, and the same year I started writing for The A.V. Club. Where does the time go?
That’s become the central question of the Hawke/Linklater films, though not the first. In the nine years between Before Sunrise and its first sequel, Before Sunset, Linklater and Hawke reunited for projects that fit the mold of so many past Together Again pairings: Linklater took a crack at a more mainstream romp, grouping Hawke with other handsome young stars via his Western The Newton Boys; Hawke got to rant, rave, and demonstrably show off in the experimental theater adaptation Tape; and that Waking Life appearance was a nice little nod at their more substantial work together, years before Matt Damon cameos became a recurring feature in Steven Soderbergh films.
None of those three films would especially define their partnership, however. By the time Before Sunset reunited Jesse and Celine in 2004, Hawke’s faux-bohemian image had mostly fallen away, and another project was humming along in the background: From 2002 until 2014, Linklater and Hawke were piecemeal-filming Boyhood, which checks in on the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages six to 18. Hawke plays Mason Sr., the kid’s sometimes-wayward father, and in retrospect, the sensibilities and ambitions of Boyhood seems to inform the remaining work Hawke and Linklater would do together. In Fast Food Nation, where Hawke is part of a large ensemble, he plays a character whose advice dispensing has some of Mason Sr.’s energy. Meanwhile, by the time Jesse reaches Before Midnight, he’s a divorced dad who doesn’t see his young son as much as he’d like, and also has younger children with his new wife—basically, the same position Mason Sr. occupies for the second half of Boyhood. The pronounced socioeconomic differences and other details live, for the most part, offscreen, where so much Linklater drama hangs out.
That unseen space is nearly as much a Linklater trademark as his walk-and-talk shots. Each entry in the Before trilogy follows Celine and Jesse over a compressed period, usually around a day—though middle movie Sunset unfolds over 80 minutes more or less depicted in real time. Boyhood, meanwhile, covers less time in total than the Before trilogy, and spends less time on its various check-in sequences. But its missing spaces between sections feels vaster still, as actors realistically age over the course of a simple cut. Throughout Boyhood, time passes inexorably and unstoppably, as in life; though the film runs close to three hours, Linklater is merciless about exiting scenes (and therefore entire years) without forcing a resolution. Almost every character besides its lead disappears from the movie without a proper goodbye.
In other words, the clock is always running, and Hawke’s performance reflects that from early on. As a father trying to reconnect with the kids he hadn’t seen in a couple of years, he’s borderline manic as he tries to fit a lot of parenting into a single afternoon: fun outings, presents, advice, interest in his kids’ hobbies. As later scenes jump ahead, Hawke maintains a similar tempo—monologuing in frustration, for example, when his kids supply vague answers to his questions about their lives during a weekend visit—while dialing down the desperation. “Let it happen more naturally,” is how he paraphrases his kids’ response to his hectoring, trying to take cues from them and perhaps enjoying the unspoken realization that he’s no longer making up for as much lost time. His performance complements Linklater’s shifting offscreen context, which establishes via Mason Sr.’s mere presence in later scenes that he’s a bigger (and therefore more likable) part of his family’s life.
Linklater and Hawke work to suggest similar dynamic shifts in the Before movies, over the course of both the full trilogy and its individual entries. Maybe Hawke’s smarm at the outset of Before Sunrise is necessary to sell later scenes. When Celine and Jesse both play-act phone calls to their respective friends from home, reporting back about their exciting, bittersweet, ambiguous relationship, Jesse uses his intentional “performance” to let his guard down further about his feelings toward Celine. He’s allowing himself to show a more honest, uncertain neediness, contrasting with the confident, desperate-to-impress philosophizing of earlier moments. Over the course of Before Sunset’s real-time 80 minutes, he eases back into his infatuation with an old love; watch how his hand gestures become less nervous over the first 20 minutes. In Before Midnight, he slides back and forth between his familiar playful musings and withering, sometimes manipulative arguments, with a voice that sounds hoarsened with age. He and Delpy both work beautifully within Linklater’s constraints, packing years of offscreen desire, joy, and disappointment into a single feature at a time.
The other persistent offscreen space in the Hawke/Linklater relationship—one that has an analog in most other Together Again pairings—is the many movies the two made apart from each other. Before Sunrise felt like it left Hawke a more likable underdog leading man, ready for late-’90s movies like Gattaca and Great Expectations. Their genteel western The Newton Boys came out in between those two films, casting Hawke as a gregarious carouser and, notably, not the actual lead. Hawke’s subsequent forays into genre movies, including crime pictures on the heels of his Oscar-nominated turn in Training Day (as well as some horror and sci-fi), have a more haunted quality, with less room for philosophizing. That’s true, too, of his performance in the non-Linklater career highlight First Reformed, an adult drama that is nonetheless more heightened and intense than his Linklater movies.
It’s tempting, then, to think of Hawke’s later-period Linklater collaborations as a truer, more grounded representation of himself on screen: He sheds his affectations through the process of making Before Sunrise, Newton Boys, and Tape, while setting aside the grimmer stuff for other filmmakers. However, the implication that there’s something more “real” about Hawke’s characters in his time-lapse work for Linklater would also probably be disingenuous. Yes, Hawke and Delpy wrote much of their own dialogue for the Before films, and those movies feel like snapshots of both actors’ onscreen personas. All the same, Ethan Hawke is not Jesse, any more than Ethan Hawke is the loathsome Troy. (For that matter, Hawke’s one “real” character in a Linklater movie is in the lighthearted Newton Boys, based on actual outlaws.)
Safer to assume that Hawke relaxed into Linklater’s patient rhythms, which are so unlike most other American directors, and so attuned to the passage of time on both a micro and macro level. Many of Linklater’s best non-Hawke movies take place on a conspicuous time frame; think of the last-day-of-school/orientation-weekend approach of Dazed And Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! and how it gives those youthful, exuberant movies a bittersweet tang (“here for a good time, not for a long time”). Back in Before Sunrise, Celine and Jesse almost immediately talk about growing old together—in the abstract, anyway. “Think of this as time travel,” he says in his initial pitch for getting off the train, and then returns to this gambit for the final scene of Before Midnight, pretending to be delivering a message from the future to a much-less-charmed Celine. In a full-circle moment, Hawke plays this moment with simultaneous charm and smarm. Turns out, he’s still got both. Some actors are mysteriously more palatable when the haloed glow of their youth begins to dim, however slightly. Some get better as they learn their craft.
So did Hawke really become a better actor over those 20-plus years, or did time just pass? Linklater’s talent lies in the way he moots that question. So much of his work depends on accumulation of small moments, often in so much volume that their passage before our eyes becomes the point, more than a particular scene, line, or performance—even if it involves a talented star. Stars can’t do everything, after all, and neither can terrific directors. My former editor Mark Asch put it this way back when Boyhood came out:
“Everything that’s bad about Boyhood is actually perfect. Kills time with canned stepdad plotline until its star turns into a real person Linklater could write for? Perfect. Acting bad? So what? Sometimes acting’s bad. Perfect. You don’t get the movie that sticks every landing. That’s what the movie’s about. Time passes, a finite number of options are available, choices preclude other choices. Good or bad, an ultimately coherent dramatic arc or not, you’re locked into the things that actually happen in your timeline.”
That’s also why it doesn’t much matter when Linklater’s work doesn’t overflow with arresting imagery. Many of his films consist primarily of walking and talking, sitting and talking, or driving and talking. From these familiar set-ups, a well-traveled star like Hawke pops out, lending certain unflashy moments—Mason Sr. gifting his son a homemade Beatles compilation; Jesse catching his first sight of Celine on that train—the clarity of a stray childhood memory. It probably didn’t have to be Hawke in those particular parts for these movies to work, but it was. He was there, and the moment was captured.
Hawke and Linklater haven’t made a feature together since finishing Boyhood. They might well work together again—though the nine-year gap that’s separated Before movies has come and gone, suggesting Jesse and Celine’s story (or our look at it) may have come to an end. And anyway, all partnerships, whether between actor and director, or husband and wife, or writer and editor, eventually end in some form or another. Lives end—something Linklater, in his sneakily optimistic way, doesn’t dwell on much. Celine discusses her fear of death immediately in Before Sunrise, while Jesse’s more philosophical take on how he sees death as “ambiguous” falls right in line with many of Linklater’s films, which rarely turn on that kind of definitive loss. The absence comes in between, in that offscreen space, surrounding the smaller moments in time that Linklater captures like snapshots. So it follows that if Boyhood is the end of the line for Hawke and Linklater, it wouldn’t carry any clear indication. You don’t always get a warning. And a warning usually isn’t enough.