Warning: This review contains mild spoilers about the fate of characters from earlier entries in the series.
With "Before Midnight," Richard Linklater has completed one of the finest movie trilogies of all time. Nearly 20 years have passed since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) met on a train in Vienna and spent a passionate night together in "Before Sunrise," then abruptly parted ways, only to tentatively pick up where they left off nine years later with "Before Sunset." That movie ended without resolving a tantalizing possibility: Would Jesse, now a successful writer stuck in a dead-end marriage, truly miss his flight back home and spend more quality time with Céline? "Before Midnight" answers that question while asking many more, consolidating the full power of the earlier movies into a masterful treatise on the evolution of romance.
The simple answer is yes: Jesse missed his plane. Nearly a decade later, he's still dealing with the aftermath. But nothing is ever simple with these movies, least of all the fate of its characters. In the opening minutes, Jesse bids farewell to his 14-year-old son, who continues to live with Jesse's ex-wife in Chicago and just completed a vacation with his father in Greece. Jesse says goodbye, exits the airport and walks to his car…where Céline awaits alongside their twin daughters. After two decades, the couple has at last satisfied the fantasy of forming the life together that always eluded them in the earlier movies. Having established that much, "Before Sunset" dives headlong into determining whether it was worth the wait — and once again avoids a firm conclusion.
After its surprising prologue, "Before Midnight" launches into the same observational formula that has become the series' trademark. In the first of many sustained takes, Jesse and Céline drive across the Greek countryside while discussing matters large and small, bringing us up to speed in the process. Still a successful novelist, Jesse bemoans the distance between him and his son during his final years at home, while workaholic Céline debates whether she should take on a new job opportunity in Europe.
By this point, their witty, contemplative banter has evolved into mature analysis of their joint responsibilities, with Céline jokingly asserting that Jesse's parenting guilt bodes poorly for the survival of their marriage. "The world is fucked," she sighs, providing the first indication that the couple faces a number of insecurities beyond their immediate future together. It's not clear yet whether she's entirely playing around, which provides the first indication of how the free-flowing nuances of Céline and Jesse's conversations lend themselves to interpretation.
This initial prolonged exchange segues into the next wave of discussion, yet another scene-setter that helps situate Céline and Julie in the present. Finishing up a vacation at their friend's house by the beach, they gather at a lunch table with several other couples (including characters played by Greek cinema notables Ariane Labed and "Attenberg" director Athina Rachel Tsangari, the latter in an enjoyably smarmy bit). Speaking candidly about the nature of lasting romance, they debate the specifics of their history together.
A canny move by the filmmakers, this extended sequence recounts the events of the earlier movies for anyone unfamiliar with them while making it clear that Jesse and Céline have arrived at a stage where they can analyze their progress in greater detail. As with "Before Sunset," Hawke and Delpy share a writing credit with Linklater and firmly inhabit their roles with a naturalistic flow. Nobody geeks out over the trivia of this franchise better than the fictional creations who lived through it, but even they can't predict what comes next.
With the context in place, "Before Midnight" seamlessly drifts into a now-familiar routine, as Céline and Jesse resolve to spend their final night off in a hotel across town, then wander towards it while talking things through. With Linklater's camera gliding alongside, the couple engages with typical fears of the personal desires, family matters and the ubiquity of the aging process. Sharing anecdotes and random jokes, Céline realizes that they're on the brink of another transformative moment: "How long has it been since we walked around bullshitting?" It's a prophetic admission, because when the bullshitting stops during the dramatic exchanges of the final act, "Before Midnight" bursts into daunting terrain for anyone enthralled by Céline and Jesse over the years. It's not fun to see your friends fight.
In the hotel room, Linklater shifts between shot/reverse shot arrangements while letting his actors relish the challenge of constructing a truly organic argument. More precise than the abstractions that dominated the discourse in "Before Sunset," the heated chatter hinges on a frequent inability to tell who has the upper hand. The constant seesawing fuses humor and sadness in a thrilling blend as both characters take potshots at each other's weak spots.
"I'm sorry to ruin your perfect little narrative of oppression with the truth," Jesse spouts when Céline complains about her restrictive parenting style. Her frustrations also build to fiery extremes riddled with equally quotable one-liners ("I'm starting to associate thoughts with the smell of shit"). Delpy's capacity to strike a mocking tone while retaining some ambiguity gives Céline the assertive upper hand. "I'm kidding and I'm not," she says at one point, which is another way of saying she doesn't really know.
Because their lives have grown more tangled and cumbersome, the style of the series has grown with them. Possibly Linklater's most refined achievement, "Before Midnight" magnifies the experience of self-examination with greater emotional weight than its predecessors. While still leaving open their future prospects, the movie brings the experiment full circle by returning to the existential yearning Linklater captures so well. It's an inviting routine: "Before Midnight" is the rare cinematic achievement that implicates alert viewers in its mission to understand the mysteries of intimate connections. "I really cherish this communication we have," Jesse says to his son, but he's also addressing the audience.
Criticwire grade: A+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Premiering out of competition at Sundance, "Before Midnight" is bound to attract numerous distribution offers and find solid commercial response in limited release on par with the reception of the previous entries. It next screens at the Berlin International Film Festival.