It’s just shy of three hours long, and every minute is a dull, tediously dull, experience. There’s only so much you can play with the fundamentals of story-telling before you’re no longer telling a story. You can take away conventional structure — this is the story of a boy who grows into a man in the unstructured, haphazard, borderline random way that all of us do. You can take away character development — how many of us really grow into adulthood in a consistent, narrative-driven way? You can take away sane running times — three freaking hours.
But you can’t take away the lot. You can’t make the audience feel that the characters on the screen are equally as bored with their lives as you are when watching them. You can’t make your characters out of emotional teflon, where nothing sticks to them one scene to the next. You can’t make the audience sit through three hours of this crap without some payoff.
Mason is five years old. His father (Ethan Hawke) is absent and he’s raised by his mother (Patricia Arquette). The family moves back to Austin so the mother can resume her studies. This starts a three hour long sequence of Mason meeting his father, occasionally hanging out with him, growing long hair, having his mother marry an abusive alcoholic, having his haircut, drinking beer, fancying girls, having his mother marry another abusive alcoholic, getting whacked in the face by puberty, fancying other girls, getting into photography, graduating, then leaving home. The same actor playing Mason at five is playing the actor at 18. It’s twelve years of his fictional life that we’ve seen on screen. How deep.
Each time young Mason ages, we need to refamiliarise ourselves with the characters. They change so much — so randomly and so unrecognisably — that it’s difficult to know why we bothered learning their stories in the last scene. Today, the father is a proud Democrat. Tomorrow, he’s into guns and marrying into a religious family. Nothing anchors the characters, plot, or action. Just as we settle into a story, time skips forward.
Mason is the least interesting character in his life. His mother is dealing with some massive crap, but we only see it peripherally. Even the Hispanic plumber ends up having some amazing story arc going on off screen. So why are we stuck with this Anakin Skywalker protagonist?
Spend three hours drinking.