Austin, Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater helped define the 1990s American indie scene with “Slacker,” a loose collection of conversations with real and invented personalities from the local Austin scene. That first film set a pattern for the filmmaker, who often employs large casts to create sprawling slice of life portraits. The lineup in “Dazed and Confused” could overwhelm a “best characters” list from many other filmmakers, and then there are the “Before” trilogy, “Boyhood,” and the new “Everybody Wants Some!!” to consider, among many others.
While often an author of his own scripts, Linklater has adapted material by Eric Bogosian (“SubUrbia”), Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”), Stephen Belber (“Tape”), Philip K. Dick (“A Scanner Darkly”), and Bill Lancaster (“Bad News Bears”). Even in those cases, the director’s methods and style make the characters his own.
Thanks to his interest in detail and speech, some of Linklater’s most memorable characters get only a scene or two to shine. We’ve taken the great and small into account as we ranked the 40 best characters in Linklater’s career. Check out our picks and argue for any of your own inclusions.
40. Conspiracy Theory Guy, “Slacker”
There’s a unique sort of discomfort in running into that guy you maybe kinda remember from high school, who is now working on his book about JFK conspiracy theories, and Slacker’s bespectacled assassination enthusiast, played by John Slate, captures that person perfectly.
39. Liquor Store Clerk, “Dazed and Confused” and “Boyhood”
So many high school kids have wanted this sort of distant “no fucks given” dude to enable a beer run. Even though there’s little more to the character than that, seeing David Blackwell return to the register in “Boyhood” was a minor but undeniable pleasure.
38. Dreamer, “Waking Life”
The unnamed main character of Linklater’s animated philosophical meander, played by Wiley Wiggins, doesn’t say much, but he’s our engaging connection to encounters with a sprawling connection of thinkers, eccentrics and colorful crackpots.
37. Raul, “Fast Food Nation”
Wilmer Valderrama‘s Raul is part of the effort to put a human face on many aspects of the fast-food industry in this didactic fiction. As an immigrant worker fed into the food-processing machine, Raul is an effective emotional connector, even though we can see the film’s manipulation at work.
36. Jess Newton, “The Newton Boys”
For most of the film Ethan Hawke‘s rakish bank robber is merely a loose collection of grins and lunges. He comes to life in the concluding trial; too little too late for the film, but his big scene sets him apart from the other criminals in the picture.
35. Pap Smear, “Slacker”
34. Linguist Kim Krizan, “Waking Life”
The characters in “Waking Life” are so abstract that choosing any one as emblematic of the film is an exercise in extreme subjectivity, but the linguist (who co-wrote “Before Sunrise“) provides a clear articulation of ideas at the center of Linklater’s film.
33. Tim, “SubUrbia”
The polar opposite of so many Linklater characters, Nicky Katt‘s drunk veteran is a racist, manipulative loon who seems to be on the verge of real self-destructive violence… all of which makes his keen perception about other characters all the more irritating.
32. Brentwood Glasscock, “The Newton Boys”
Dwight Yoakam reins in his scenery-chewing tendencies for a small, focused performance. His explosives expert is invaluable to Willis Newton’s bank-robbing efforts, and as the guy most capable of commanding attention for the first two acts, he is key to Linklater’s film as well.
31. Charles Freck, “A Scanner Darkly”
After playing memorably dopey stoner Slater in “Dazed & Confused,” Rory Cochrane dove into deeper, weirder addiction as the guy who hallucinates bugs on his body before eventually orchestrating a highly symbolic suicide attempt. Just try not to itch yourself while he’s on screen.
30. Morris Buttermaker, “Bad News Bears”
The hard-drinking former ball player-turned-exterminator and children’s coach at the center of Linklater’s baseball remake is memorable thanks to Billy Bob Thornton, who bundles his own tics with the guy’s bad impulses to create a likeable rogue.
29. Amy, “Tape”
Uma Thurman‘s Amy is the object of discussion for much of the one-room psychodrama “Tape,” the focus of two men who had very different relationships with her a decade prior, but once she arrives in the film’s latter half, she’s immediately the most vibrant and fascinating person in the room.
28. Randall Floyd, “Dazed and Confused”
Close in some ways to the lead dreamer in “Waking Life,” this high school football star ponders his place in the social order and the world at large as he lopes easily through social circles thanks to his good looks and easy charm.
27. Summer Hathaway, “School of Rock”
Assigned as a groupie when Dewey Finn hands out band roles to his students, Miranda Cosgrove‘s Summer rightly rejects the afterthought gig. She takes the plum role of band manager instead, and works it to the hilt with a combination of entitlement and keen business sense.
26. Sylvia, “Fast Food Nation”
After illegally immigrating to the US, Sylvia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) finds her life spiralling out of control due to limited work options and her husband’s own problems. Hers is the most complete and tragic story, even if Sylvia, like all the film’s characters, barely gets a chance to establish her presence thanks to the film’s fractured structure.
25. Orson Welles, “Me and Orson Welles”
The film may be stuck in second gear, but as Orson Welles, Christian McKay is convincingly charismatic and frame-filling as a premiere talent (and ego) of American theater, radio and cinema. The part captures Welles’ uncanny power to sway people to act in his own interest.
24. Sooze, “SubUrbia”
Seemingly the only resident of this fictional Texas town whose ambitions are still alive, Sooze’s (Amie Cary) artistic feminism is nascent but sincere. She’s so ready to get out of town that Sooze is in danger of being taken for a ride, but there’s no one more vibrantly optimistic in this bleak film.
23. McReynolds, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Pitcher-hating Glen McReynolds is the sexual alpha of the baseball team at a Texas college, obsessed with winning in every circumstance — and captivated by his own ass. Thanks to the believable leadership qualities of Tyler Hoechlin, he’s more than just a blowhard.
22. Willoughby, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
He’s probably not as wise as he’d like to claim, but next to some of the other baseball players this beardo stoner is Socrates. The music fiend, played by Wyatt Russell, has secrets (don’t we all?) but at least he’s not a loudmouth who worships his own ass.
21. Samantha, “Boyhood”
Samantha gets to veer off in her own direction as “Boyhood” focuses on her brother Mason, and the performance by the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater is so unerringly on point that we often want the camera to linger on her evolving personality just a little longer.
20. Luckman, “A Scanner Darkly”
We’ve seen Linklater do the stoner type before, but Woody Harrelson‘s Luckman pushes the druggie stereotype, like so many other elements of this Philip K. Dick adaptation, to comic absurdity. We should all be so ideal when we’re as shaggy and clueless as Luckman.
19. Mike, “Dazed and Confused”
Adam Goldberg is spot-on with the creation of a kid who can’t figure out what he is, much less what he wants to be. Gotta admire his willingness to start a fight he has no hope of winning, even if he doesn’t exactly know how bad the odds really are.
18. Jake, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Cut straight from the “Linkater lead” mold, Jake (Blake Jenner) is an All-American kid whose quiet adaptability seemingly allows him to fit in anywhere, but his musing in a punk club about his own shifting identity suggests that he realizes just how fleeting his moment of status might be.
17. Slater, “Dazed and Confused”
Rory Cochrane‘s super easygoing weed enthusiast could be the primo cinematic ambassador for getting blazed. He’s on point with his bong tech, too, advising fellow shop students on their gear.
16. Donna, “A Scanner Darkly”
At first glance the low-level dealer played by Winona Ryder appears to be little more than an older version of some of the fringe characters in “Dazed & Confused,” but Donna has secrets that turn the end of this eulogy to drug-culture (and drug war) victims on its head.
15. Cynthia, “Dazed and Confused”
Of all the weirdos, freaks, and struggling young personalities in “Dazed & Confused,” Marissa Ribisi‘s smart and fun-loving Cynthia appears to be the most balanced; she’s probably got a brighter future than anyone else in the film. Hopefully she doesn’t spend too much time with Wooderson — just enough to have fun.
14. Bernie, “Bernie”
One might be tempted to write off this mortician and emotional people person as some bizarre caricature, but Jack Black helps turn him into a tender and tragic romantic figure, even though he’s one who also happens to be a murderer.
13. Jay Niles, “Everybody Wants Some!!”
Decked out in crop tops and big glasses, this self-aggrandizing crank, played by Juston Street, is the biggest riot in Linklater’s ’80s college movie, but his emotional turning point on the baseball field is also among the film’s most effective moments.
12. Darla, “Dazed and Confused”
We don’t even see much of Parker Posey‘s domineering senior, but her gleeful “air raid!” cry is one of several instances of manipulative high school social politics captured in this senior afraid her power is already fading.
11. Fred O’Bannion, “Dazed and Confused”
Oafish and, frankly, dumb, this flunked senior played by Ben Affleck keeps his cool more than most would be able to when confronted by a shotgun-toting mom, but his eventual comeuppance is delicious.
10. Marjorie, “Bernie”
Shirley MacLaine growls her way through this wildly underrated hybrid of black comedy, romance, and reportage. MacLaine is a winner in every scene, even if she has nothing more to offer than a scowl.
9. Barris, “A Scanner Darkly”
Iron Man was a year away but Robert Downey Jr. was already enjoying his career resurgence when he poured all his twitchy intensity into this paranoid kook who seems capable of anything. We don’t want to look away from him, if only because we don’t trust him for a second.
8. Mitch, “Dazed and Confused”
Willowy Mitch transforms from boy to young man in the course of a night, and the unique physical performance from Wiley Wiggins helps distinguish the incoming freshman as an individual trying to find his way through high school pack behavior.
7. Bob Arctor, “A Scanner Darkly”
Let’s hear it for the vague blur! As this undercover cop attempts to reconcile his fractured, drug-addled identity, animation-enhanced Keanu Reeves delivers one of his most contained, effective performances, culminating in a final scene that drives home the totality of his loss.
6. Dewey Finn, “School of Rock”
The struggling musician who finds his true calling teaching the ins and outs of rock and roll to kids gave Jack Black his most satisfying role to date by drawing out his most amiable and empathetic qualities to unify all the actor’s comic quirks.
5. Olivia, “Boyhood”
While “Boyhood” has a natural center focus in young Mason, its richest material explores the changing fortunes of an average American family, and Patricia Arquette‘s Olivia is in truth the most captivating presence in the story, as she falters through relationships before finding her own way.
Entire personality tests could be derived based on whether viewers sympathize more with Ethan Hawke’s character, or Julie Delpy‘s Celine in the “Before” movies. Hawke has done many films with Linklater, but this is their defining collaboration, a sympathetic but unvarnished portrait of artistic masculinity.
3. Wooderson, “Dazed and Confused”
This cruiser could have been little more than a catchphrase character, but Matthew McConaughey‘s breakthrough performance transformed the too-old-for-school horndog into a bizarrely appealing icon with an actual philosophy, rudimentary as it may be.
2. Mason, “Boyhood”
1. Celine, “Before Sunrise” / “Before Sunset” / “Before Midnight”
Linklater’s chief focus is often on young dudes, but his three-film collaboration with Julie Delpy (a co-writer on the “Before” series) has created one of the most fully-realized women in cinema. Celine reflects life’s changing desires and priorities. She’s a dramatically charged and empathetic figure whose dynamic response to Jesse’s own idiosyncracies are all too easy to understand.