Ethan Hawke and director Richard Linklater have cornered the market on films that answer the question, how much dialogue can Ethan Hawke deliver in a single film? The answer: quite a bit! Before Midnight is the latest in this series of topical minimalist discussion films; Linklater directed Hawke in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (the two predecessors to this film) as well as in an unrelated but similarly styled film in 2001 called Tape. These are all risky and polarizing films in that they are stripped down character studies packed wall to wall with dialogue and little else. The key to their success is simply that the actors are up to the task and that the discussions are extremely compelling.
Before Midnight is the third and likely final film that documents the relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). While the two met happenstance on a train in Europe in Before Sunrise and then reconnected slightly by chance in Before Sunset, it is not necessary to view either of these films before seeing Before Midnight. Apparently Jesse did “miss that plane” from Before Sunset because Before Midnight finds Jesse and Celine on vacation in Greece nine years later. Jesse is working on his third book while Celine is contemplating a major career decision. Jesse’s son from his first marriage is nearly 15, and he and Celine both have young twin girls of their own. While Before Sunrise looked to capture true love at its inception and Before Sunset looked to watch it blossom under unforeseen circumstances, the appropriately ominously titled Before Midnight looks to uncover the tension that lurks within every relationship when life gets complicated. Jesse and Celine’s banter at this point reveals a familiarity that manifests playfully at times but also bitterly and honestly raw at others. We first see Jesse at the airport sending his son, Hank, back to the states. We then follow the couple through four distinct and ever-intensifying scenes that culminate in a hotel room in the South Peloponnese region of Greece.
The real power of the film is watching and experiencing the communication breakdown and habitual reparation in a relationship. Every scene is so authentic that it is unlikely that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship can view this film and not hear at least one phrase he or she has uttered at one point or another. The film forces the audience to view it introspectively and reflect on the inherent competitive nature that exists within relationships. It also forces the audience to feel relief that they are simply witnessing these exchanges and not necessarily a party to them. This is a film that can get you to squirm in your seat with genuine awkward discomfort. Consequently, Before Midnight is a major departure from its predecessors in terms of tone and mood. Furthermore, this film also has a broader focus, introducing some additional characters into the mix and adding context and perspective to some of the deeper conversations about love, sex, age, and life.
Before Midnight is the most bittersweet entry in the series, but it is perhaps the best. It is superbly acted and extremely well written, although tremendously chatty. If that description doesn’t interest you, skip it and go see Man of Steel. B+