Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Richard Linklater’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” came (and went) last weekend, and while critics were mixed on the movie, few could deny the joy of Cate Blanchett’s lead performance. Across his long and eccentric career, Linklater has always been able to inspire the best from his cast.
This week’s question: What is the best performance in a Richard Linklater movie?
Jack Black (“Bernie”)
Though the “Before” films are my all-time favorite trilogy, with Delpy and Hawke giving some of the most raw and complex performances of their careers, I want to celebrate the under-appreciated wonder that is Jack Black as mortician-turned-murderer Bernie Tiede in “Bernie.” It’s the perfect role for emphasizing Black’s strengths and none of his weaknesses as he imbues Bernie with an energetic earnestness. Black shows unusual restraint here, keeping all that explosive “School of Rock” Jack Black manic energy pent up until Bernie finally commits the unthinkable, surprising even himself with his violence. And the “Seventy-Six Trombones” and “Love Lifted Me” musical moments highlight Black’s vocals and dance moves–the guy can really sing, and “Bernie” allows him to do so as an authentic part of his character’s personality. It’s all about the tiny details: the mustache, the hair, the outfits, the singing and dancing, the prayers, even his walk and posture. It’s quirky, sincere, darkly comic, and enigmatic. Thanks to Linklater, it’s Jack Black at his best.
The transformation of Jack Black in “Bernie” is on another level to anyone else from other Richard Linklater movies. Black had always been multi-talented and a sly SOB, but I didn’t think he had this kind of performance in him. Watching him restrain his usual manic self and squeeze into the shell of Bernie Tiede (the first real person Jack’s ever played) was a revelation. The movie is well-lathered in black comedy and Black hits every mark to brush his own paint of mystery and doubt onto his nefarious character. The measurement Jack put into his gait, stature, tone, volume, line delivery, and timing was marvelous to see creating a true enigma. That kind of full immersion is a high level of acting. I know 2011 was a loaded year for male performances, but Jack Black deserved an Oscar nomination. His performance and the film are under-appreciated.
Linklater brings out something really special in Jack Black. Sure, he calibrated the comedian’s peak-era star persona to maximum adorability in “School of Rock,” but it’s in his 2012 film “Bernie” that Linklater made Black really sing. As the real-life Bernie Tiede, Black feels like the perfect fit for the material: at all times, he masks Bernie’s true motivations with his beady eyes and Cheshire-cat smile. He’s at once all that is wholesome and deeply rotten about modern evangelical Christianity; Bernie’s far from a gaudy televangelist, but there’s clearly a power dynamic he enjoys with the small-town folk of Carthage, Texas that he mines to terrific effect.
He’s still got the voice of an angel, but this time his golden pipes are used to unironically worship God rather than Tenacious D’s tongue-in-cheek hailing of the Dark Lord. Despite being a short, stout, supercilious man, it’s easy to see how someone as effortlessly present and transactionally helpful as Bernie could win the trust of an entire town… enough to acquit him of murder. In many senses, Bernie is a child — currying favor by making himself of use, hiding behind kindness and religion because he can’t bear to face uglier, more uncomfortable truths about himself.
Attuning Black’s innately comedic shades to a character as disarming as Bernie Tiede is perhaps Linklater’s most genius bit of casting, second only to his work with Matthew McConaughey in “Dazed and Confused” and, well, “Bernie” (being one of the McConnaissance’s most foundational bricks). But here, in Linklater’s most tonally complicated and innately journalistic film, Black truly gets the chance to be not just a performer, but an actor, and it’s nothing short of miraculous.
Jack Black (“School of Rock”)
The best performance in a Richard Linklater film is the one performance that absolutely no other actor could have pulled off: Jack Black in “School of Rock.” It’s an apex movie star performance—the film primarily succeeds because of the pure joy elicited by watching a particular person play a character they’re uniquely qualified to play. If we’re being honest, “School of Rock” has one of the more absurd plots in movie history. But you never think about checking out on the film’s premise because Jack Black has you so firmly in his grasp. Like “Beverly Hills Cop,” or even “City Lights,” “School of Rock” feels something like a classic purely on the strength of being the perfect vehicle for a singularly gifted performer.
Matthew McConaughey (“Dazed and Confused”)
Alright, alright, alright… Matthew McConaughey as slacker/stoner Wooderson (a role he was born to play) in “Dazed and Confused” sticks out as one of the best performances in a Linklater movie not only because it was one of the actor’s first big roles, but also for how memorable he was onscreen. The dialogue, the swagger, the everything – he nailed it. (An unsurprising note about the origin of this role: most of the character’s lines were improvised or written on the spot, which attributes to why the character is so much like McConaughey himself. McConaughey wasn’t even originally cast in the film, either. At a bar in Austin, he approached the film’s casting director, and the rest is history.) It was a small role (comparatively speaking), but the performance made an impact, as evidenced by the roles that McConaughey went on to garner following the role, and the way Wooderson’s lines are still quoted today. “You just gotta keep livin’, man, L-I-V-I-N.”
Parker Posey (“Dazed and Confused”)
So many to choose from, but I have to go with Parker Posey, blasting into the public consciousness in “Dazed and Confused.” When Darla barks, “Wipe that face off your head, bitch!” moviegoers everywhere immediately wondered who this creature was and where she came from. It’s a character turn worthy of a Preston Sturges movie, and it heralded the arrival of one of the most bewitching and scene-stealing performers of our generation. Hollywood still doesn’t deserve her.
Christina Radish (@ChristinaRadish), Collider.com
It’s so hard to pick a “best” performance in a Richard Linklater film when there are so many to choose from, but one of my most memorable is definitely Parker Posey in “Dazed and Confused.” The film, which follows the adventures of high school and junior high students on the last day of school in May 1976, is a classic that helped launch and raise the career visibility of many of its cast members (including Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Renée Zellweger and Milla Jovovich), and while Posey isn’t in as many scenes as some of the other actors, her presence is one of the most talked about.
As foul-mouthed senior Darla, Posey is the ultimate bitchy mean girl in any era, terrorizing the incoming freshmen girls that she’s subjecting to her own form of hazing. Whether she’s spraying freshmen with ketchup and mustard, or demanding that they submit to her every whim, you often wonder what might have driven someone to such behavior, but still enjoy how much she revels in the nastiness of it all. Posey also delivers one of the films best lines, “What are you looking at? Wipe that face off your head, bitch.”
Keanu Reeves (“A Scanner Darkly”)
Not that any of us are actually sick of hearing the sweet sound of his name, but Keanu Reeves reigns supreme once again, this time as a rotoscoped undercover cop with an autonomously splitting brain in Linklater’s Philip K. Dick near-future adaptation, “A Scanner Darkly.” Bob Arctor might be Reeves’ most brooding, peculiar, esoteric, and introspective performance to date, as well as the most impressive performance in a Linklater film. Drug-addled and ontologically lost, Arctor drifts through a digitized world in his identity-shifting uniform, nearly every moment an ominous requiem for an exponentially vanishing civilization. And it didn’t hurt that he had a phenomenal supporting cast in Winona Ryder, Woody Harrelson, and a witty, paranoid Robert Downey Jr. who preceded–but smoothly transitioned into–“Iron Man.” Arctor’s titular voiceover captures the essence of Reeves’ performance perfectly: “What does a scanner see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does it see into me? Into us? Clearly or darkly? I hope it sees clearly because I can’t any longer see into myself. I see only murk. I hope for everyone’s sake the scanners do better, because if the scanner sees only darkly the way I do, then I’m cursed and cursed again.”
Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant
The thing about Linklater’s films is that the performances are always good. It’s part of what makes his body of work so special. In the interest of calling attention to a performance that deserves more praise, I’ll pick Keanu Reeves as Bob Arctor in “A Scanner Darkly.” The character is a cop on the trail of dealers making and peddling a drug that causes severe hallucinations and split personalities. He’s hooked on the stuff himself, which just adds a layer of complexity to everything. Reeves has always excelled at playing individuals who are spacey or introspective. Those qualities serve him well as Arctor. The character occasionally forgets who he is and Reeves makes that loss of identity disturbing for the audience.
Patricia Arquette (“Boyhood”)
Even though it’s been a while since I’ve watched “Boyhood,” I find it hard to forget the strength and power of Patricia Arquette’s performance in that film. As Olivia, the mother of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), Arquette is a constant presence throughout, and, though the film is largely geared towards tracking Mason’s life in the twelve years the story covers, Olivia’s journey is just as—if not even more at times—vital to the film in all its transfixing, wrenching, and thoughtful dynamics. Arquette is truly magnificent, portraying the character throughout the many difficulties and struggles she faces; and above all, Olivia is never presented as a mere supporting character along someone else’s narrative. “Boyhood,” despite its title, is most enriching when taken as an examination of more people than just Mason, and nowhere is that more clear than when discussing Arquette’s nuanced and moving work.
Patricia Arquette as the mom in “Boyhood.” You might think that a film about boyhood wouldn’t have much to say about motherhood, but Arquette’s performance manages to prevail above any other in the film that at its core is a unique interpretation of what parenthood looks like through the eyes of a child. You see the confounding agony, poor decisions, and a deep yearning emanating through every line of Arquette’s line delivery and choices she made both her facial expressions and the tiniest of gestures. It is utterly gutting and so moving to watch.
Patricia Arquette is put through the ringer in “Boyhood” more so than anybody else. Ethan Hawke gets some difficult moments as the father character, but he flits in and out of the action. Arquette is tasked with carrying the emotional weight of the movie, whether she’s letting everybody down or, in what is easily the film’s most devastating scene, proclaiming her life is over now that her youngest child is off to college. Hers is a performance honed over 12 years of making not just the movie itself, but tackling other roles outside of it, as well as being a mother herself. Although Hawke’s performance feels lived in, Arquette’s is effortlessly realistic. The character fits her almost too well, her commitment forcing us to confront feelings about our own mothers long since buried as adults, if they were ever even consciously there in the first place.
“Boyhood” is the story of a young man’s journey to maturation, but really it’s about a woman trying to keep her family (and everything else in her life) together who, when she finally gets a handle on it, finds her children have moved on and don’t need her anymore. And, as a result, she no longer has a purpose. As she tearfully intones, Mason’s mom just…thought there would be more. It’s a devastating proclamation delivered with the precise amount of pathos by an actor in complete control, who has an inescapably personal connection to the material. As we watch Arquette perform it, forgetting hers is a performance at all, we realize with sadness that we all do too (and we should probably call our mothers and thank them).
Joanna Langfield (@Joannalangfield), The Movie Minute
I was almost astonished Patricia Arquette won all the awards for “Boyhood”. Not because she didn’t deserve them. She did. But her performance, so delicate, powerful and revealing is also far more subtle and selfless than the usual prize grabbers. One of the many things that knocked me out about this great, experimental piece is the natural progression of all the characters as we reunite over the years. Clearly, Linklater had a thoughtful process with each actor. What he drew from the very willing Arquette is not just a remarkable feat, but it is also work that’s true, raw and as vivid as it is profound.
Part of the benefit of making a movie that only filmed periodically for over a decade is seeing the actors grow over that time. That’s not to take away from what Ethan Hawke or my pick for this question, Patricia Arquette, were able to bring to the beginning chapters of “Boyhood.” However, the evolution of their characters is only enhanced by the growing awareness of these people as performers continuing to inhabit a role year after year.
With Arquette in particular, I found a lot to relate to with a single-mother dealing with starting over, raising kids, and trying to hold everything together amid poor choices, and other stressors of life. It’s an entirely effective performance made better by Linkalter’s way of directing the actors quite well and knowing how to stay out of their way.
“Boyhood” may have been an ambitious film project, but it’s not a showy one in terms of direction. Instead, the actors convey what’s needed, and Arquette became an instant favorite for awards voters for a good reason. You see the support she brings to her children, the sadness and fear that comes at points where things could have been different, as well as her resolve to keep herself and her children safe.
All of that leads to a few final scenes where she gets to both receive accolades for how influential she has been, as well as breakdown when realizing she will no longer have her children under her care. It’s a lot of emotions to play, and they’re all well earned.
Teresa Taylor (“Slacker”)
There is so much in the “Before” trilogy,” especially the ending of “Sunset”—”Baby, you’re gonna miss that plane”—but the emblematic performance has to be Terese Taylor in “Slacker,” selling Madonna’s pap smear. That she’s also the Butthole Surfers drummer AND central to the poster and key art fulfills icon status.