Richard Linklater’s debut film “Slacker” depicts a single day in the lives of young bohemians living in Austin, Texas. It adopts a unique Joycean structure of following a single person for a while as they go about their day, and then leaving them to follow another person who has just passed through the frame. His 1993 follow-up “Dazed and Confused” is more expensive and more focused than his plotless debut, but Linklater still retains the single day structure, the large ensemble cast, and the loose rambling nature from “Slacker” for his first mainstream film: a teen stoner movie about the existential boredom of adolescence.
“Dazed and Confused” is set in Austin, Texas on the last day of Lee High School in 1976, and the incoming senior class is getting ready to haze the incoming freshman class (senior guys paddle the freshman boys, senior girls publicly humiliate and degrade freshman girls). Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the school’s star quarterback and our audience surrogate, moves fluidly between the various social circles at school, but becomes dismayed when his coach wants him to sign a pledge promising not to do anything that may affect the “goal of winning a championship season in ’76.” Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a freshman whom the seniors have their eye on, tries to avoid getting paddled, but is eventually cornered and violently beaten; however, Pink takes pity on him and invites him out to hang with him and his friends later that night. Along the way, the geeky trio Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) try to find something to do; David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey in a career-defining role) schemes to save the night after Pickford’s party gets cancelled; senior bully O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) gets what’s coming to him; and so on and so forth. “Dazed and Confused” isn’t driven by plot, but rather the meandering motions and minor struggles of its ensemble cast of characters, all crossing paths and taking left turns on the same piece of dirt.
But “Dazed and Confused” endures as a modern classic because it’s the rare film that acutely understands adolescence, and how most of it is spent just waiting for something to happen. Linklater adopts an observational, anthropological approach to “Dazed”; he uses his camera to closely watch his characters in their natural habit as they drive around, shoot the shit, drink beer, get high, worry about the future, wreak havoc, and get high again, because that’s what you do when you’re old enough to know there’s a bigger world just out of reach but young enough not to be able to grasp it. There’s no manufactured drama, but rather minor strifes, like Pink’s struggle to break from the tradition of his teammates by not signing the pledge or Mike standing up to a bully by fighting him and then badly losing, but none of these conflicts are treated as anything but small skirmishes in the long, tough war ahead. There’s brief, honest connections between people from different worlds, such as Tony and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) who bond over marginalization and pancakes, which may lead to lasting relationships or not at all. There’s a melancholic sense of uncertainty that runs through the entire film as characters spent the night pondering their present and wondering if this is the best it’s gonna get.
Linklater takes seriously the existential dilemmas his characters face but he never places to fine a point on it or make it larger-than-life. He understands that teenage crises are fleeting and will be forgotten in no time, but he also understands that they are very real in the moment. Mike waxes poetic about how his misanthropy makes him unwilling to help the less fortunate; Pink nods politely at the older couple who expect nothing else from him but to take the football team to the championship; Wooderson, the twenty-something voice of wisdom, warns them of the various compromises the world will force them to make. These sentiments are certainly universal, but they also reflect the culture at the time. “Dazed and Confused” is set a few weeks before the patriotic bicentennial celebration, but Linklater doesn’t let us forget the irony of celebrating the greatness of a country in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam landscape. “Dazed” is a great period film not because of the clothes and the music, but because it subtly embodies the pessimistic, lost tenor of the era. The characters are mentally stuck between the free-wheeling 1960’s and the cynical, hard-bitten 1970’s, and all they could do is quietly hope that the 1980’s will be better.
Though “Dazed and Confused” certainly is a smarter, more observant drama than its reputation would suggest, it’s hard to ignore its many superficial pleasures as well. “Dazed’s” laid-back, ambling tone makes it conducive to watching it in just about any state (Chuck Klosterman famously said that he’s “watched ‘Dazed and Confused’ approximately sixty-five times, and [has] been stoned for approximately sixty-four of those viewings”), and it has endless replay value. It’s very, very funny filled with many visual gags, great lines of dialogue, and Slater, one of the best stoner characters in film history, courtesy of Rory Cochrane, who rambles about how George Washington grew fields of weed and Martha had a “big fat bowl” waiting for him when he got home. “Dazed and Confused” closely resembles the feeling of a long intoxicated night out with friends: it’s fun and it feels like it’ll last forever, but underneath the surface lies existential dread about how the good times won’t last forever, and how maybe the good times weren’t so good after all.
More thoughts from the web:
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
We follow a large number of teenagers, boys and girls, popular and not, “good” and “troubled,” as they drive aimlessly around town, drink beer, hang out, trade adolescent life-truths, lust, experiment with sex, fight, and in general, try to invest their passage into adulthood with a significance it does not seem to have. “If I ever say these were the best years of my life,” one of the kids says, “remind me to kill myself.” Linklater does not impose a plot on his material. “Dazed and Confused” (the title comes from a song) is not about whether the hero gets the girl, or the nerd loses his virginity, or the bully gets beaten up. It doesn’t end in a tragic car crash, although it does end in some quiet moments of truth, which are not pressed too hard. The film’s real inspiration, I think, is to depict some high school kids from the 1970s with such unblinking attention that we will realize how romanticized most movie teenagers are. A lot of these kids are asking, with Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?” Read more.
Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
Yet as funny and pleasurable as it is, “Dazed And Confused” isn’t like Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar, or any of the straight-up pot comedies with premium re-watch value. Amid all those good vibes, there’s a melancholy tone that’s been curiously denied as the film’s cult following has amassed. Though no artist can dictate or control how their work will be received, Linklater’s film is about painful rites of passage: the ritual hazing of freshmen; the quarterback who moves effortlessly between cliques, wrestling with a decision that will turn his teammates against him; the nerd who starts a fight and loses, badly, rather than resign himself to being “an ineffectual nothing.” In every case, these are kids who feel penned in by tradition and expectation, whether they’re warily submitting to the business end of a shop-crafted paddle or forced to sign a bullshit clean-livin’ commitment statement in order to lead that championship season. Read more.
Matt Hughes, Movie Mezzanine
“Dazed and Confused” represents the insecurities and uncertainties of a select group of youth in a blurry glow of unbridled nostalgia and good times. The ages of its inhabitants range from freshman to senior, but the theme for them all remains the same: they’re all scared, hopeful, anxious, apprehensive, looking forward into their adolescence, looking forward into eternity, eyes constantly on the horizon, as the music blasts and the beer flows the anxiety-ridden question looms over them all throughout, where are they going? Do they know? Will they ever know? Read more.
Noel Murray, The Dissolve
That’s because so much of “Dazed And Confused” should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been an American teenager, no matter the era. For all Linklater’s attention to how high-schoolers interact — and how they sometimes cruelly cut each other out, or fail to understand the larger meaning of what they’re going through — he sends the audience out on an up note, with the seniors driving off to get Aerosmith tickets, and a still-buzzed Mitch settling back onto his bed, to reflect on how much has changed in his life in less than 24 hours. Because he’s a teenager, Mitch feels this moment more intensely than someone older might. Here he is, master of his small niche in a small town, doing as Wooderson would want him to: L-I-V-I-N. Read more.
Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Dazed and Confused” unfolds in a loose, natural style that suits its teen-age characters, whose collective mental state is reflected by the title. To the blaring, less-than-nostalgic music of bands like Foghat and Deep Purple and Black Oak Arkansas, these high school students drive around and contemplate the future in “American Graffiti” fashion. Their drifting is treated as a form of forward momentum, even though it sometimes becomes aimless and the film’s improvised quality becomes overpowering. The actors bounce off one another with crazy riffs and cosmic observations, some of them unexpectedly funny. Mr. Linklater wrote “Dazed and Confused” as well as directing it, but not much of the film sounds tightly scripted. Read more.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
I enjoyed some performances (especially by Wiley Wiggins and Rory Cochrane) but hankered after the precise sense of place and the elliptical treatment of character that gave Linklater’s “Slacker” some of its distinction; here one learns enough about the characters to realize how little Linklater knows about them, and so little about the location (despite the Texas license plates) that one often feels stranded in Anywhere, USA. What survives is a better-than-average teen movie but not much more, at least if you aren’t a member of Linklater’s generation. Read more.