Life is full of many transitional periods. Hell, in many ways life itself is just one big transitional period. An endless ebb and flow of cascading stages and shifting phases, we move from one point to the next, from childhood to adolescence, changing and evolving, questioning and learning, rebelling and fighting, and sometimes, just sitting back to enjoy the ride. Richard Linklater's 'Dazed and Confused' examines one such fluctuating time, following a diverse ensemble of high school students in 1976 as they celebrate the last day of the school year with a crazy night of hazing, fun, and wild partying. As the sun goes down, various cliques and personalities mull over life in semi-coherent musings while they all get high, drunk, and into lots of trouble. Filled with tons of memorable characters, dialogue, and situations, Linklater's stylistically and structurally lax examination of youthful abandon and growing pains, crystallizes a specific era and culture while still maintaining an effortless air of timeless, universal relatability.
The loose plot revolves around a class of incoming high school seniors and freshmen as they enjoy or simply try to survive the first night of summer vacation. A sprawling cast of characters guide us through the night as we jump around from one clique and social group to the next, including jocks, nerds, outcasts, stoners, and everything in between. The various archetypes are all juxtaposed against one another as members of each group mix in and out of their various crowds, blurring the lines between them while highlighting the differences and similarities that bind and separate them all. The social hierarchy of high school society itself is examined, and each isolated arc ends up playing a larger role in a free flowing tapestry of amusing conversations, comical hijinks, and just plain fun. Traditional plot really isn't a priority here, and Linklater instead chooses to focus on smaller moments, showcasing the teenagers simply being teenagers, with many scenes capturing nothing more than the kids driving around and hanging out. This approach leads to a very stripped down, sincere, and ultimately heartfelt tone that makes these characters feel like real, fully realized individuals. The actual way the story is told, perfectly mirrors their personalities and the kinds of situations that they find themselves in.
While the narrative is mostly episodic and free of conventional structure, there are still several distinct plotlines that connect the various, juggling stories into a slack but still cohesive whole. Throughout the night, seniors chase down helpless freshmen in order to painfully haze them into high school life, and a pot smoking football player (Jason London) struggles with his own conflicting ideas of freedom and responsibility. Going along with these storylines, the real heart of the movie rests in the dual arcs of incoming freshmen Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina Davis (Christin Hinojosa). At first tormented by their upperclassman, they're eventually invited to ride along with their elder peers, and throughout the wild night they are given their first dramatic peek into high school life, filled with lots of drinking, pot smoking, flirting, occasional danger, and carefree abandon. Watching the world of the film through their fresh eyes gives the proceedings a sweet and honest feel, that helps to ground and seep the movie in a certain kind of realism.
The cast itself is mostly fantastic, featuring some very entertaining turns by the likes of Ben Affleck, as a sadistic two-time senior obsessed with torturing as many freshmen as possible, and Rory Cochrane, as a quintessential stoner who delivers a particularly entertaining discussion that ties George Washington, weed, and aliens together in a mishmash of paranoid pothead logic. Even the very minor supporting characters each get their own moments to shine. Special recognition must of course go to Matthew McConaughey for his legendary and iconic portrayal of the aging David Wooderson, a sort of creepy yet still somehow effortlessly cool man who can't seem to let the glory days of high school go. Every word out of his mouth is pure gold, and has been and will continue to be quoted countless times. Unfortunately, not all of the performances are top notch, and some of the actors' line readings can come across as stilted or unnatural. Strangely though, this really doesn't hurt the film, as the occasionally uncomfortable delivery works well with the whole awkward, realistic vibe that Linklater is going for.
Stylistically, the director employs a fairly no frills visual approach, usually letting the characters' actions simply speak for themselves. Much of the film has a very fly-on-the-wall, almost documentary feel, that puts us right into the situations and events. Though Linklater usually practices restraint, there are still several instances where a more energetic and overt style is displayed, including some cool POV shots, uses of slow motion, and camera movement. Outside of his visual choices, the music in the film becomes a vital factor in the storytelling. The song selection, comprised of classic 70s rock tunes, becomes a character onto itself, breathing life and authenticity into every frame. The tracks are perfectly married to the images and it's impossible to imagine the film without them.
Adolescence can be a crazy time, full of confusion, frustration, and pain. It can also be pretty damn fun, and that's exactly what 'Dazed and Confused' demonstrates. While there are many deep and rich themes at work, there is no real moral, no underlying message, and no actual plot resolution to speak of. We meet our characters in the afternoon, and by sunrise the next morning, they're gone. Linklater has no grand ambitions, he just wants to take a brief look into the lives of a group of youths in 1970s America, to show them doing what the young have, and always will do -- drink, smoke, fight, fall in love, question life, and just keep on livin', man (L-I-V-I-N). This is a pure joy of a movie that captures the intangible essence of youth before it's tainted by the real pressures of adulthood, and it's all done with wit, humor, and plenty of heart. Funny and endearing, this is an irresistible cult classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
First released on HD DVD in 2006, 'Dazed and Confused' is brought to Blu-ray by Universal on a single BD-50 disc housed in a standard case. Some skippable trailers play upon startup before transitioning to a navigation menu.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Though pretty respectable, there are a few minor technical issues here and there.
The source print is in good shape and natural grain is visible throughout. Instances of minor edge enhancement, and a faint vertical banding effect in panning motions, are also visible periodically, but don't substantially hurt the presentation. Detail is good, but the picture has a sometimes soft look to it, which appears to be inherent to the cinematography itself. Colors are nice, showing off the fun 1970s palette, but there is rarely any sense of real pop. Black levels are solid and whites are natural without blooming, giving a good sense of contrast. With all that said, the image can look a little dull at times and lacks an impressive sense of depth.
'Dazed and Confused' looks just fine on Blu-ray and Universal seems to have done a decent job. Still, there are a few issues that demonstrate some room for improvement, and I'm curious to see what Criterion has to offer with their own upcoming release of the film.
The movie is presented in an English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, and a French DTS 2.0 track. Subtitle options include English SDH, French, and Spanish. Fueled by one of the best rock soundtracks to ever grace the silver screen, the audio sounds very nice.
Dialogue is clean and clear. Directionality is solid, with appropriate effects moving around the soundstage. Surround use is fairly active, bolstering the music and adding some ambiance. Imaging can seem a little unnatural, particularly when characters' voices switch between speakers mid sentence, but it's never really distracting. Dynamic range and bass activity are strong, especially in the rock soundtrack, delivering each classic tune with great fidelity and a full gamut of frequencies, including an occasionally booming low end. Balance is mostly good, but the music tends to be mixed a little higher than the rest of the audio elements.
This isn't a totally enveloping auditory experience, but the modest sound design, great music, and technical proficiency, suit the production well.
Universal has included a small collection of supplements including some deleted scenes and a few amusing, but completely unnecessary vintage PSAs. All of the special features are presented in standard definition with DTS 2.0 sound and English, French, and Spanish subtitle options.
'Dazed and Confused' is a funny and heartfelt look at adolescent culture through a loose lens of organic storytelling that's free of the rigid constructs of traditional plotting. The video transfer is solid and the audio is very good. Supplements are sparse and only vaguely related to the film. Universal has done a decent job with this disc, but most potential buyers will probably want to hold out for Criterion's upcoming release, which at the very least will provide more substantial special features.