Midway through the new drama Last Flag Flying, a trio of middle-aged men, each quietly refusing to acknowledge the traumas brewing inside them, take a breather in the back of a passenger train. The moment should be a solemn one. They are, after all, only on the train so that one of them – Steve Carell's mild-mannered Doc – can deliver a special package back home: the coffin holding the body of his son, killed in action while serving in Iraq.
Yet it isn't long before the group's de facto leader, Bryan Cranston's sour bartender Sal, cracks a joke involving a shower, a towel and a penis. And then the most serious of the bunch, Laurence Fishburne's man-of-faith Richard, takes the gag further. And then Doc bursts into giggles, high-pitched squeals really, which throw the entire group into back-slapping yucks – and suddenly we're smack in the middle of a signature Richard Linklater groove.
You know the kind even if a ready example isn't on the tip of your tongue. It's the probing, yet casually cool conversations of Before Sunrise. The gentle, meandering rambunctiousness of Dazed and Confused. The soulful kids-grow-up-so-fast vignettes of Boyhood. The loving alpha-male ribbing of Everybody Wants Some!! The Linklater Groove (I'm copyrighting that term here) is a directorial force that gently pushes a narrative along while allowing the audience to remain firmly in the moment. It's easy, it's relaxed, it perhaps gives off the air of whatever-man indifference. But it is entirely, skillfully planned and sincere. Just like the man himself.
During a brief phone call the other week to discuss Last Flag Flying, the director's latest film and perhaps his most of-the-moment (even if that moment is technically more than a decade ago; more on that later), the 57-year-old lets his sentences gently stream forth, almost always punctuated by an "oh yeah, man" or a "man, of course, of course." On first impression, it seems that Linklater is just too relaxed. But there's a deliberate sensitivity and thought process behind every answer, every tiny revelation. Richard Linklater is a man most at home in a groove – but it is a genuine one.
"'Groove' is the right kind of word, yeah," says Linklater when asked how he'd describe the pacing of his films. "It wants you to come along with it. All movies do that to whatever degree, and [ Last Flag Flying] in particular, it unfolds in a way that invites you along for the journey."
It's a journey that, over the past 2 1/2 decades, has propelled the Austin, Tex.-based Linklater to the top of the indie-filmmaking food chain. Unlike some of his peers, Linklater has never inched his way into the mainstream, into the bidding wars of someone such as Quentin Tarantino or high-brow experiments of Steven Soderbergh. Instead, he has remained firmly in his own, well, groove, making mostly small, mostly personal dramas that lightly, but smoothly, tug on the nagging corners of existence: What does it mean to love? What does it mean to grow old? What does it mean to face a life unlived? It's sunny-afternoon existentialism, and thanks to his command of character and ear for dialogue, Linklater's work never slips into freshman-year philosophizing. (Can anyone imagine how unbearable Waking Life would have been if it were directed by absolutely anyone else?)
Last Flag Flying, Linklater keeps wandering down this path, walking straight into middle-aged angst. It's that mindset where he finds the film's three leads, reunited decades after serving together in Vietnam, and each still trying to sort out their feelings for one another, and life in general. (The movie is adapted from Darryl Ponicsan's novel, a sequel to his 1970 book The Last Detail, though Linklater abandons any allusions to Hal Ashby's adaptation of the latter, starring Jack Nicholson.)
"In my last film, Everybody Wants Some!!, everyone is looking at nothing but the present moment, because they're loving that. There's no talk of the past, of what the world has in store for them. Here, everyone knows exactly what life has in store for them, and nothing is easy," Linklater says. "These three guys have been affected deeply by their experiences together and life in the long term. They're all medicating in different ways and trying to get through this world."
They cope by, yes, cracking wise, but also in seeking comfort in each other. While other filmmakers might have been tempted to build up the drama to explosive moments of forgiveness and redemption, Linklater takes a more subtle and quieter approach. Doc, Sal, Richard – they are all severely damaged and haunted, but they don't need flashy moments of emotional catharsis to heal. The path forward can just as easily be found in a knowing look, a slip of sincerity, a filthy joke aboard a train. Linklater knows this kind of quiet magic can't be assembled randomly, either, which makes him a genius of casting (you can guarantee that, just as Dazed and Confused's cast of now-famous faces, Everybody Wants Some!!'s college bros will be marquee-worthy in a decade).
"Oh man, well, it's the whole movie, the casting of these guys. If these guys aren't compelling, then you don't have a movie," he says when talking of assembling Cranston, Carell and Fishburne. "It's my job as a director to go with their unique energies and strengths, to just represent the collaboration. And everybody brought the best of themselves."
This all hits a particular high point when Doc, Sal, and Richard find themselves contemplating the purchase of cellphones – because while the story may deal with themes of order and service and responsibility that easily fit into 2017, the movie actually takes place in 2003. So Linklater's three leads end up haggling over the purchase of flip-phones and discussing the finer points of "shared minutes" – all the while, the actors completely disappearing into their roles as bickering, balding war buddies.
"Oh man, that's one of the few scenes in the movie that put it in a time and place. We thought it would be fun to show the last three guys in the world without cellphones," Linklater says with a laugh. "The world, overall, it hasn't changed much since then. The technology shifts, the mentality shifts a little, but overall we don't shift."
So Richard Linklater will stay in his groove, for now and ever. And thank goodness for that.
Last Flag Flying opens Nov. 24 in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.