Any romance with a happy ending is false. Bliss between lovers is only a prelude to inevitable clashes, distrust and apathy that will eventually erode the affair to nothingness. That's true even for the most breathless of fictional love stories, concocted in the masterful Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004).
Before Midnight, which is hopefully only a middle chapter in a series that will continue to check in as a time capsule every nine years, is fearless for the way it ruthlessly devours the sweetness and sentiment in the films that came before. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, whose characters met for a sweet yet fleeting one-night stand in the first movie, then a complicated -- but just as precious -- rendezvous in the follow-up, now sacrifice their adorable love to the unforgiving altar of time and changing personalities.
Once again the movie is just about all dialogue, mostly with Hawke and Delpy talking. The trend of darkening, more severe subject matter that started in the second film continues here. The romance that remains is less about attempts at stoking blossoming flames of love than it is about feeding whithering embers of burned-out passion.
The relationship, stunted because it covered so much ground in its two days separated by nearly a decade, has now run its course and is left wheezing and hunched over. Instead of tantalizing each other by swapping thoughts and emotions that draw them closer together the more they learn about one another, they sling barbs harvested from knowing each other all too well. Each ups the stakes with threats that are either implied or direct, upping the passive-aggressive ante to higher, more punishing levels.
Hawke and Delpy are almost too convincing in their performances, seething with contempt. They jump on each others' thoughts, hammer on insecurities and prey on festering wounds. Watching the movie, you almost feel like children watching your parents argue. You long for a truce because you can't fathom the pain of them separating. After all, if these crazy kids-turned-middle-agers can't make it, who can?
What keeps the movie from being a depressing fireball of angst is that despite all the hurt, and the raw, unnerving dread of the clashes, hope still flowers. Director Richard Linklater could have forced the sentiment by inserting flashbacks of the previous movies, but he instead makes the flashbacks all verbal -- letting the actors paint their memories with expressions and descriptions. Those who haven't seen the earlier films will not be lost, but won't get nearly as much out of the nuances and shades as those who know and love those movies.
Before Sunset remains my favorite of the trilogy, but there's a heft and strength to Before Midnight that outweighs the first two films combined. It's a brutal parade of heartbreak and mind-rake that leaves you curled up and wound up in a ball, covering your eyes but peeking through parted fingers.
Starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Written by Hawke, Delpy and Richard Linklater, based on characters created by Linklater and Kim Krizan. Directed by Linklater. 109 minutes. Rated R.