With Before Midnight, Richard Linklater's continuation of the film series started in 1995 with Before Sunrise and deepened with 2004's Before Sunset, the Austin-based auteur has crafted a worthy addition to arguably the most artistically ambitious ongoing cinematic story of the last 20 years.
Picking up nine years after we left main characters Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke), Before Midnight doesn't attempt to rehash what has come before. Linklater and his leads (who co-wrote this film together, as well as the last one) instead tackle head-on the capital-R Romanticism that made the first two installments enduring classics. Midnight isn't about falling in love or getting a second chance at correcting a mistake -- it's about how the day-to-day quotidian reality of life and relationships makes it difficult for people to hold onto their romantic feelings. The title is as much an allusion to Cinderella as it is to the previous two films.
The screenwriting trio fill the movie with long, discursive conversations (there are only two scenes in the first 20 minutes) that feel utterly improvised when they are performed, but are far too deftly structured to be anything other than the work of consummate artists. All of the talk and personal issues -- which include Jesse feeling like a bad father to the teen son he had with his ex-wife and Celine's indecision about a lucrative new job offer -- lead to an epic final act in which the two of them have an alternately blistering, hilarious, and heartbreaking exchange about their relationship.
During the course of this last third of the movie, you begin to appreciate how subtly the screenplay has set the table for this remarkably personal conversation, and how long both the audience and the actors have lived with these two people. Celine and Jesse have become as beloved and familiar as favorite characters from TV shows that run for a decade, but they've done so with less than six hours of screen time stretched out over 18 years. As well as we know them, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke know them even better, allowing the filmmakers to play with Jesse and Celine's casual cruelty, their annoying neuroses, and their erotic frankness in ways that are fresh and still totally right for this couple.
The movie paints in no uncertain terms how people in their forties wrestle with regrets -- you realize you can't start over, while simultaneously understanding exactly what you've lost by making the life choices you have. The film's conclusion is probably more open-ended than it may appear, leaving fans with the welcome suspicion that in another nine years, we'll see how the pair are dealing with being 50.