In 1973, George Lucas made American Graffiti with its look back at teenage life in a California town in the early 1960s. The concept of a movie about teens wasn’t really new at that moment even if the way in which Lucas weaves the story might have been. And, if it wasn’t new in 1973, it certainly wasn’t new in 1993 when Richard Linklater wrote and directed Dazed and Confused, which in itself is a look back at teens in 1976.
There is, in Linklater’s film, a whole lot to like, from its cast of then unknowns who went on to become very well known in Hollywood (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Jason London, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, and Joey Lauren Adams all appear in them film) to its soundtrack to the universal motif of kids struggling to find out what it means to grow up. Without the bit of that sentence which actually names people, the phrase could appear in a review about any number of coming of age movies, it’s a well-worn genre. Dazed and Confused simply happens to be the entry into the field which speaks to those who came of age in the mid-1970s.
Beyond having a similar overall feel to American Graffiti, the film suffers from perhaps the most serious drawback of Lucas’ work as well – the plot is exceptionally weak. Linklater tries to weave together a huge number of tales about a group of seniors who have just finished high school and a far smaller group of incoming freshman. While he does create some interesting characters, as the movie progresses Linklater seems to grow bored of some of them, choosing to focus instead on others, and then, the film ends because… well, because he’s only dealing with the last day of high school and the night which follows the day, and the night ends so the movie has to as well. The vast majority of the characters get nothing resembling closure. There are no great character arcs here, it is just the tale of a night and little more. It is a virtual certainty that whichever character you feel most attached to at the start of the film, come the end of the film, you will feel as though you were cheated out of at least one of the important moments of their night.
Much of the plot that exists within Dazed and Confused centers around the tradition in this Texas town of male seniors paddling incoming freshman senseless. While it’s a momentarily potentially funny concept, as it unfolds over and over and over again one almost ends up feeling bad for Linklater. The writer/director grew up in Texas went to high school at the same moment in history depicted here, and one can only imagine his participation on both ends of such a ritual.
What Dazed and Confused does absolutely brilliantly is setup and execute a period (even if it’s a recent period) piece. From cars to clothes to hair to furnishings, Linklater’s film feels of that moment. The soundtrack—a huge reason to watch the film in and of itself—blares great rock tunes from beginning to end. Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, Bob Dylan, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, KISS, The Runaways, and Lynyrd Skynyrd are just a few of the bands you’ll come across listening to the movie.
There is a contingent of people who truly love this film, and if you’re someone who can relate to the characters or lived a similar experience, you’re sure to enjoy what Linklater offers up. In this scenario, the film will work because of what you, the viewer, bring to it, Linklater offers all too few relatable characters and moments for the rest of us.
There is a Criterion Blu-ray release of Dazed and Confused on the horizon which is sure to offer far more in the way of bonus features than what is included here. This Blu-ray release comes with deleted scenes, a “filmstrip” depicting the dangers of marijuana, and some retro public service announcements. With neither the filmstrip nor the retro service announcements is it really particularly easy to tell (unless you are aware of their history) whether they’re real or made more recently as a joke. There is, in short, not much in the way of bonus features available.
The technical aspects of the release, however, are excellent. The colors are rich and vibrant, particularly when they’re part of a shiny automobile. The level of detail, too, is quite good, as are the black levels. Much of the film does take place at night, but there is little difficulty making out what is happening in the shadows. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very good as well. The surrounds do come into play to help situate the viewer, but mainly you’ll hear them blasting away the aforementioned soundtrack. The audio is crisp and clean and well balanced with the rest of the track. The film isn’t terribly old and has been released and rereleased a number of times so it is no surprise that the source material is quite good.
If you already know that you’re a fan of Dazed and Confused, probably you should just wait and get the upcoming Criterion Blu-ray release. If the idea of watching young kids get bullied by older kids is not one you particularly appreciate, it may be best to avoid this film in its entirety. While the coming-of-age film is an ever-expanding genre, this entry into it is best suited for those with a similar history who can ground it in their own experiences, it is not your typical universal coming of age story, and is certainly not wholly accessible.