10th Jun2019

‘Dazed and Confused’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp | Written and Directed by Richard Linklater

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A certain generation regards this 1993 comedy-drama from Richard “Boyhood” Linklater as their The Breakfast Club. Except its period setting makes it a recollection rather than a snapshot, so it has more in common with George Lucas’s American Graffiti. Dazed & Confused similarly cautions against nostalgia, reminding us that, whatever the decade, youth is a challenging and awkward time; joyous for some and cruel for others.

In typical Linklater style, the action takes place within a tight timeframe: the last day of school in the year 1976. (“School’s out for summer!” cries Alice Cooper – one of many on-the-nose music cues throughout the film.) Unleashed, an array of students and ex-students run rampant around town, bickering and bantering, picking on the younger kids, while looking forward to what feels like the last party of their childhood.

There is a vague focus on two male characters: Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), who is about to make the transition from Junior High; and Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), who is on the cusp of a football scholarship. Or possibly not. Floyd is caught between his innate sensitivity and his jock douchiness, and his pocket is burning with an unsigned pledge to rid himself of chemical vice and devote his body to sport. Meanwhile, the awkward and slight Kramer is surfing a wave of sudden relevance and popularity, terrified and elevated.

But these two merely hold the slightly greater narrative gravity. Really, the film is montage of many teenage lives, all intersecting, as they prepare for the great unknown of adulthood. “It feels like everything we do is to service the future,” one observes. In the meantime, there’s the matter of living in the moment, which means getting as high as they possibly can.

While it wasn’t unusual to see such a formless narrative in a 90s indie picture, it’s impressive to see a young Linklater – he was in his early 30s – working with such freedom and confidence. His decision to use improvisation pays off, and the freeform approach to structure allows him to focus only on the parts that really work (e.g. the wriggling performance of Wiggins) while sidelining the parts that really don’t (e.g. anything involving the unloved Shawn Andrews). The result is an effective ensemble: it really feels like these kids know each other.

Watching after a couple of decades away, there’s a sense that Linklater is reclaiming youth from the misfits and outcasts of the 80s, focusing instead on the “in” crowd, and the competition at the top. Heading up the miniscule geek contingent is Adam Goldberg’s Mike – a nervous weed who is notably punished for overstepping the boundaries of the alpha male hierarchy.

The comedy antics are mostly about dumb posturing and ill behaviour: boozing, vandalism, bullying, cheating on partners, that sort of thing. It’s a convincing slice of life, for sure – depressingly so at times. To Linklater’s credit, he spends a lot of time adding nuance to the jock stereotype, carefully differentiating between the vicious, bullying attitude of Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion and the more playful yobbishness of Floyd’s football crew.

But there is no doubting where Linklater’s interests lie: would-be alpha boys negotiating their way to manhood. The girls don’t get much to do other than service the guys’ ego: eye candy, or simply there to validate their masculinity. They’re just another fork in the road. Incidentally, roads are a motif throughout the film: the veins that bring these incomplete people together – and also give them a means of escape. Floyd’s ambivalence about the weight of life choices at such a tender age is universal and timeless, so it’s apt that the road at the end is wide open.

For a generation of boys, Dazed & Confused was thrilling and formative, and it is a pleasure to revisit. For newcomers, perhaps it’s sufficient just to revel in the period setting and the mixtape soundtrack, while playing a game of spot the future movie star (Matthew “Alright, alright, alright” McConaughey). Love it or loathe it, it’s the quintessential slacker comedy of its decade.

Director-Approved Special Edition Features:

  • Audio commentary featuring Linklater
  • Making “Dazed”, a fifty-minute documentary by Kahane Corn
  • Rare on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage
  • Footage from the ten-year anniversary celebration
  • Audition footage and deleted scenes
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Plus: a booklet featuring essays by Kent Jones, Jim DeRogatis, and Chuck Klosterman; reprinted recollections of the filming from cast and crew, and character profiles from the Dazed and Confused companion book; as well as the original film poster by Frank Kozik

Dazed and Confused is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 10th June 2019. Order yours from Amazon.

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