To Richard Linklater, a film built within the stretch of twenty-four hours is a playground, and not some form of cinematic restraint; he naturally navigates the time, such as in Slacker and Before Sunrise, quickly establishing chemistry between persons of specific, often conflicting types for cathartic explorations of their differences. In Dazed and Confused, he masks an even more ambitious idea with a lackadaisical rhythm of smoking pot and listening to tunes, capturing both the span of an era -- the '70s -- and the maturation of a generation within a single day's time. Cleverly disguised as a stoner-slash-teenage comedy running wild once the school bells ring, and still rewarding on that base level with plenty of belly-laughs and nods to the era, it's also an American Graffiti-esque, effortless depiction of coming-of-age through the rites, boozing, decisions and toughening-up that come with the territory.
Taking place in the sunny confines of Austin, Texas during the last day of school in 1976, the story has about as much to do as the kids just released from their teachers' supervision: not very much, aside from landing at a house party planned later that evening. That, of course, is aside from the rising freshman of Lee High School, who will be looking over their shoulders as they flee school to avoid getting paddled or hazed by the newly-crowned seniors. By following the aimless atmosphere, we're allowed to get swept up in the interactions between different personalities; the popular head quarterback, Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), bounces among all the groups, from the paddle-wielding jocks to the sticky-fingered stoners and the fretful intellectuals looking for the right time and place to cut loose, while he contemplates a slip of paper he's got to sign -- a no-drugs, no booze pledge -- to play ball.
There's not much of a plot to Dazed and Confused, really, only a block of time in which we experience the interwoven escapades -- often humorous, always grin-inducing -- of a group of kids hopping around a sleepy town's haunts, mostly without rhyme or reason other than to either emphatically embrace their youth or dodge the sting of growing-up. Its lack of structure makes the varied subjects stand out, as if Linklater saw the funneled archetypes that befall the '70s culture and specifically partitioned them into authentic, albeit palpably identifiable types. There's the bully (Ben Affleck), the baked-out-of-his-mind stoner (Rory Cochrane), the perverted jock (Sasha Jenson), the school's popular "Wicked Witch of the West" (Parker Posey), the consistently-young older guy (Matthew McConaughey), and a secondary root structure, and they're accentuated by a range of early performances from many, many recognizable actors (you'll spot Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Cole Hauser, and others in smaller roles). In a haze of weed, beer, and exuberance, we follow their aimless endeavors.
Linklater's mid-'70s aesthetic feels genuine, but only because he doesn't overstress the design or mood. Seminal tunes from Fog Hat, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath pound against the humming engines from a Chevelle here and a GTO Judge there, expected sights and sounds from the era as the kids cruise from pool halls and convenience stores to yard parties. While the director shows a clear attention to detail, he doesn't haphazardly drop relics in the frame for simple emotional triggers; instead, he genuinely recreates the era's essence through the eyes of his mainstay cinematographer Lee Daniels, aged but with a clear and accessible perspective. Linklater's central focus lies in the interactions between the assortment of personalities, and he dresses them accordingly for the period without making them showy -- a puka shell necklace, a tightly-rolled t-shirt sleeve, worn bell-bottom jeans and unkempt hair everywhere.
Dazed and Confused saunters between the social groups as it paints a clear portrait of what's going through their minds as they contemplate their next moves (both for the evening and on a grander scale), but it clearly focuses on the emergence of a specific freshman: Mitch Kramer (played just right by newcomer Wiley Wiggins), the slim little brother of one of the rising seniors. He's practically a walking bullseye because of his sister, yet after he endures the hounding from the beefed-up seniors -- led by bloodthirsty fifth-year linemen O'Bannion, pretty much faultlessly played by a paddle-spinning Ben Affleck -- he gets dragged into a crazy evening where he's assimilated into the social rankings. Linklater cleverly, and quite genuinely within the day's stretch, uses the rising freshman as both the tantamount target for ridicule and as a reminder of teenage first-time experiences: cruising (and vandalizing) with the guys, losing track of beers drank, and staying up until dawn with a girl.
The rest of the characters -- and I emphasize characters, as they're not caricatures -- carry out free-form conversations that fit their place in the social stratosphere, seemingly meaningless chatter in the '70s high-school atmosphere. But atmosphere's exactly what they're building, and Dazed and Confused hits perfect tonal chords within its vintage essence, mixing humor, warmth, and an unassuming affective streak. There's a great juxtaposition between the intellectual crowd and Pink's conversations with his teammates that strikes a cleverer chord than one might expect, where one group bickers about the futility of preparing for the future in lieu of partying and the other talks about surrendering a right of choice to continue playing football -- their version of "the future". The way moments like this fluidly find a place in the story works as a testament to Linklater's all-embracing eye, as well as his adept and aware penmanship.
Video and Audio:
Dazed and Confused arrives from Universal in a Blu-ray disc that largely serves to replicate the HD-DVD offering from a few years back, and the 1.85:1 1080p AVC encode reflects a similar, appropriate visual competency. Linklater's intended look latches onto a hazy, aged disposition to enhance the film's vintage essence, so it's not home to many crisp textures within its largely utilitarian capturing of standing bodies and crouched car-rides. This high-definition treatment nails the content where it counts, though, giving off pleasing, not-too-warm skin tones, balanced color usage (popping greens in trees, rough blues in jeans and overalls, and lots of appropriate but clear blooming in neon signs), and deep black levels. And, though there aren't many opportunities for detail to shine in the image, some points do excel above the standard-definition presentation, such as flecks of, erm, foliage on a girl's fingertips, the chain-linking in fences, and the shine of lights against metallic elements on cars.
But, damn, does Dazed and Confused sound good in this DTS HD Master Audio treatment, a notch or two above the superb DTS track on the DVD presentation from The Criterion Collection. The music, of course, takes front-center stage, blaring out the '70s tunes with a razor-sharp ear for the thumping drums, low-riding bass, strumming guitars, and other percussion elements. The revving and rolling of muscle cars dips into the lower-frequency channel exceptionally too, giving off a faint chest-rattle occasionally that really satisfies. Verbal clarity appropriately pairs against the music and bustle of the Austin arena, clear as a bell where it needs to be and submerged underneath raucous activity where what's required as well. The sound design becomes all about consistent essence as we coast along with the characters from location to location, and this high-definition audio treatment knows when to be quiet, boisterous, and everywhere in between at just the right points. Really excellent. A French 2.0 DTS track also adorns the release, while English, Spanish, and French optional subs can be selected with the picture.
Here's where things get tricky. See, there's an elephant in the room: The Criterion Collection, who have already put out an exquisite two-disc edition of Dazed and Confused on DVD, announced that they're upgrading that particular package to Blu-ray come October. A full array of supplements -- including commentaries, a comprehensive making-of documentary, and other features -- will accompany that release and, unfortunately, aren't made available for Universal's Blu-ray. Therefore, this disc will best serve more casual fans with its appropriate audiovisual properties, while the disc arriving later this year will satisfy its more stringent cult following.
Instead, there are only a handful of supplements to wrap your hands around here. The U-Control: Music of Dazed and Confused essentially fires off track listings and bits of textual information, so you can check out the song title as it plays in the film, the band that performed each number, and some other production credits for each song. Also included (as they were from the HD-DVD edition) are the shoddy-quality Deleted Scenes (4x3, SD AVC), a goofy PSA parody entitled The Blunt Truth (4:21, 4x3 SD AVC), and two authentic Retro Public-Service Announcements -- VD is for Everyone (1:01, 4x3 SD AVC), and the legendary Crying Indian (1:02, 4x3 SD AVC).
Dazed and Confused is a blast, but it's also a quality time capsule and, in retrospect, an enormously well-crafted depiction of growing up -- in the '70s, or any time for that matter. On the surface, you'll have a great time with the foggy trip through a night in '76, fueled by Linklater's cleverly witty dialogue and eye for the time period. But there's also a warmly-felt center to the tale of social gatherings, one that shrewdly captures the awkwardness of both coming into a new period of your life and, in exchange, exiting as well. Universal's Blu-ray looks great and superb, but the lack of extras -- and the emerging Criterion Collection edition due out in a few months -- pumps the brakes on a fuller recommendation for this disc. Recommended.
Note: The images in this review are from Criterion's DVD of Dazed and Confused, and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray reviewed here.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site