“Details is my middle name, all right?”
—Matthew McConaughey as Willis Newton

“I am the victim—the happy victim—of my environment.”
—Jean Renoir while promoting The Crime of Monsieur Lange in 1936 

It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books

Richard Linklater’s first feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (88), is the travelogue of a young man, played by Linklater, riding the rails, hitching, and driving through the southwestern United States. The unnamed protagonist flounders about pleasantly in Austin, visits a friend in Missoula, and hoofs around San Francisco by his lonesome (chatting up strangers, though the conversations can’t be heard, covered by city noise, or waves crashing against rocks at a lighthouse by the bay). Then he returns to Austin, babysits his mother’s dog, and, finally, is given a cassette tape by Daniel Johnston, whom he does not know. During their spontaneous meeting Linklater reveals that the film’s title is written on one of the T-shirts he’s been wearing the whole time: “Old Russian proverb,” he says.

Put another way: it’s impossible to learn to make films unless you just go and make some. A no-budget production shot on Super 8 entirely by Linklater, with the help of a friend recording sound, Learn to Plow is what the director, an autodidact and college dropout, has called his “graduate thesis.” Its loose story of a journey seems inspired by (and comes to close to sharing the philosophy of) Chantal Akerman’s Les Rendez-Vous d’Anna, with hints of Bernard Queysanne’s 1974 Georges Perec adaptation, Un homme qui dort. Linklater’s film has a similar feel for the sense of confinement in homes and public spaces alike, the driving boredom experienced at a street corner, or by an open window, as days pass with little to do.

But Linklater also celebrates the ease of rapport among friends, as well as the “why not?” of falling into new relationships, of circumstantial encounters with whoever, wherever.  It’s a hang-out movie that, depending on a viewer’s age and stomach for the poetry of wandering and the romanticism of youth, is either a very melancholy work or one invigorated by a decidedly American sense of freedom. It affirms the nature of a country born from restlessness and composed of landscapes that are themselves in flux, open to the interpretations of drifters in search of certainty, stability, meaning, and, from that meaning, a way to live.

It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books

Learn to Plow has two modes: the reassuring un-eventfulness of leisure time, and the steady stop-and-start of travel. A dozen or so near-characters dribble into and out of the film as Linklater moves from one place to the next. Little to nothing about their relationships, situations, or personal experiences is explained. The elliptical narrative sends these abstracted people through arrangements of starkly discrete spaces—a hallmark of Southwest sprawl—with only the suggestion of significant events happening off screen and with a general but shaky sense of how much time has passed between scenes (most of which are covered in a single shot). Linklater lets the locations drive his compositions, as with the stairwell that obscures Linklater’s wanderer as he parts with a recent fling, only his hands visible as he touches her shirt in farewell. He focuses attention on his character’s surroundings, and how they affect the placement of their bodies in relation to each other, downplaying their already subdued interactions and non-expressive reactions.

Learn to Plow has less dialogue than any given two minutes of a later Linklater film, but it already shows his confidence and precision in compressing a remarkable depth of social observation and feeling into gestures, body language, the gaps between what is said and what is withheld or can’t be articulated. In one such scene, while waiting for yet another train, Linklater sits next to a young woman smoking a cigarette outside the station. He glances at her, she glances at him, she offers him a drag, he declines, and after an awkward pause they briefly lock eyes. The next shot (which echoes the previous one) shows the young woman and Linklater sitting next to each other now inside the station; she’s asleep in a chair, he writes her a letter we never get to read and leaves it on her bags before walking away. It’s two minutes of on-screen time, total, but in this unexpected encounter, there’s a sense of the swirl of connections and possibilities untold buzzing around us at any given moment—the ineffable loveliness of being a person among people, and having the ability to be present beside them and nowhere, too.

Many of the film’s most compelling relationships are developed through variations from one shot to the next. Where characters stand or move in one shot may be mirrored by the movement in the shot that follows: during the Missoula chapter Linklater brushes his teeth at the top left of frame, the rocky hill beneath him sloping down toward the bottom right. The next shot shows Linklater and a friend crossing from left to right, dipping slightly downward in the middle before settling in the far right corner to observe a distant mountain range. Negative space and traversed areas are given equal consideration to the actions exhibited in those spaces. The slope of the hill in the first shot is echoed by the actors’ trajectory in the second and, combined together, the two shots unify and pronounce the expansiveness of these locations. The flow of the narrative therefore becomes clear in the compositions themselves. It’s a strong, early example of Linklater’s career-long use of structuring principles as the fulcrum of his aesthetic.

It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading

These rhyming or contrasting spatial arrangements in Learn to Plow have a conceptual, self-conscious, almost mathematical simplicity. But there’s always an implied acknowledgement of the malaise experienced by people living at a comfortable distance from conventional lifestyles. They’re mostly young men in the process of articulating their wants and needs to themselves—a normal stage of youth told with the weightiness and displeasure of those in the thick of living it.


Newton Boys Richard Linklater

One decade later, Linklater made The Newton Boys, on a budget of $27 million (compared with $3000 for Learn to Plow), still one of his largest productions. It is likewise a film in thrall to the objects, customs, and cultural preoccupations that define a place and time—in this case Texas and the Midwest in the early Twenties. And it’s also a film deeply invested in the decency and confusion of people growing with, helping, and relating to one another, while lacking the undercurrent of alienation in Learn to Plow.

That sensitivity to the everyday comes through in Linklater’s grass-fed and fable-like story of America’s most successful bank and train robbers, the Newtons, who came from a long line of penniless farmers and, in all their years of banditry, never killed a soul. Willis (Matthew McConaughey), Joe (Skeet Ulrich), Jess (Ethan Hawke), and Dock (Vincent D’Onofrio) lived into their seventies and eighties after returning to polite society—just a bunch of good ol’ boys turned folk heroes turned beloved old men of their small town communities.

The film’s governing ideas are its dynamic sense of place and the fleeting nature of wonder. Linklater takes great care to elevate his characters’ reactions to newly acquired wealth, opportunity, and romantic liaisons beyond the level of sentiment or plot point, to make them a core part of the film’s meaning. When Jess and Joe join Willis at the swankiest hotel in Omaha to begin their careers together, Linklater frames the pair within the clear middle panel of a stained-glass window in the hotel lobby. The lobby’s interior is suffused in a soft and pinkish gold light, and as the Newtons savor its opulence, their reaction dovetails with an era’s hopes of upward mobility, dreams of personal fulfillment the two men are now walking around inside of. 

Newton Boys Richard Linklater

When the Newtons begin their heists, Linklater mostly depicts them as elaborate games of youthful abandon. The “boys” and their fidgety demolitions expert Brentwood Glasscock (Dwight Yoakam) embrace knuckleheaded masculine traditions of braggadocio and good-natured tomfoolery. Planning the train job that will get them caught, the Newtons arrange inch-tall plastic soldiers, cowboys, and Indians around a model locomotive to layout their plan, like kids enjoying a train set on Christmas morning. And in different ways, the boys treat family itself as a form of theater, contributing to the film’s affectionate and subtle rendering of familial bonds.

The film’s depiction of the Newtons’ antics is in the service of revealing both character and the social context that shapes it. When McConaughey’s Willis, pleased with himself as always, buys a five-cent Police Gazette (in a tip of the hat to his misdeeds) from a beautiful cigar-stand attendant, it’s an announcement to himself that he’s finally doing what he wants and heading wherever he wishes. He begins wooing that cigar-stand attendant, a single mother named Louise (Julianna Margulies), and when he races her son down the staircase of a movie palace, Linklater cranes the camera back and down as they tear past other patrons. As the camera comes to a rest, and Willis and the boy exit the shot, Linklater pauses for a half-beat on a young girl being lectured by her finger-wagging father.

Linklater’s detail-oriented approach to the period piece is unpretentious and freshly executed, but it’s also dependent on the specific energies of its actors. McConaughey and Hawke brashly root the drama of a given moment in their ability to change the trajectory of scenes by boisterously calling attention to their scheming and playfulness, respectively. Key to the film above all is McConaughey’s Willis. He plays the eldest Newton brother as a bird of prey with an ego instead of bloodthirstiness. Willis is a sweet-talking man on the make with the logistical knowhow of a businessman (which he aspires to be) and the zest for showmanship of a natural self-mythologizer (colored by the impoverished environment of his upbringing). He’s always trying to persuade, his laser-focused eyes affixing on any and every chance for personal gain, scanning rooms for someone to charm, ingratiate himself to, and blindside with that smile which fills his face as quick as a huckster’s.

The Newton Boys Richard Linklater

And yet Willis is genuine in his beliefs, reactive to and amazed by the possibilities and commotion that surround him—all he needs is a moment, a glance returned. He’s a lusty man bolting for penthouse heights of elegance in every aspect of life, with a connoisseur’s enjoyment for it. In Willis, Linklater and McConaughey achieve the portrait of a man hungry to the point of anger for those splendors promised him by his birthright as an American.