Three actors yakking in a single drab interior, shot on HD video: It’s unlikely this poverty-program recipe has, or ever will again, yield results quite as entertaining as “Tape.” A more-or-less verbatim translation of Stephen Belber’s stage play, Richard Linklater’s feature does recall certain prior legit-to-film translations, notably “Oleanna” and “Death and the Maiden.” The similarities, however, lie less in its teasing structure or cinematic limitations — latter pretty much a non-issue here — than in an interrogatory setup that frames provoking ethical questions in vividly human terms. Star trio of Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard will help at the wickets, but “Tape” will require considerable marketing ingenuity nonetheless. Emphasis on its combustible emotions, suspense and surprising humor should help draw sophisticated auds who, once lured, will quickly find themselves hooked for the duration.
Curiosity is piqued straight away as we meet Vince (Hawke), a somewhat disheveled hipster who’s barely settled into an ugly Lansing, Mich., motel room (apart from having already stripped down to his skivvies). Clearly something big is about to happen, given Vince’s manic preparations — which include ritual chugging of several brewkis, each gulped one oddly “toasted” by another poured straight down the bathroom drain.
One susses that inebriation is, for Vince, like throwing gas on an open flame; it renders an already impulsive personality capable of anything, with more ill than good likely to result.
A knock on the door announces it’s showtime, as lifelong friend Johnny (Leonard) shows up for a planned dinner date. Clean-cut Johnny, a filmmaker, is in town for the premiere of his latest feature at a local festival. The reasons for Vince’s midwest visit are murkier.
Very little reunion camaraderie is exchanged before long-simmering frictions begin to surface. Vince reports a girlfriend of the last three years just left him, citing his “violent tendencies” and “unresolved issues.”
“I’ll find somebody else who appreciates my dark side,” he smirks.
Johnny greets this news with practiced, quasi-parental dismay. Considering that he’s “made it,” or nearly so, as an artiste (and one whose oeuvre is apparently ripe with moral grandstanding), Johnny feels quite justified in reading the riot act to a pal whose principal “job,” at the brink of 30, consists of “private dope delivery to ex-hippies.” His condescending tone does not go unnoticed by Vince, whose sarcastic responses are as goading as they are defensive.
Mysteriously delaying their chowtime departure, Vince switches the conversation onto less heated terrain. By the way, he mentions, did Johnny know that living nearby is Amy Randall (Thurman), the girl they both dated in high school over a decade before? She and Vince had been a steady couple; when that relationship ended, a much briefer one with Johnny followed. Latter professes he hasn’t thought of her, much less had contact, for many years.
But it’s obvious this is one of those “unresolved issues” Vince famously can’t let go. His idle reminiscences soon grow inquisitional, as he accuses an initially outraged, then tongue-trippingly nervous Johnny with (spoiler warning here) date-raping Amy at a party some 12 years prior.
To reveal more would seriously impair first-time viewers’ experience of Belber’s tricky-yet-always-psychologically-sound plot mechanics — though not in the masterful way Linklater and his cast negotiate each move.
Biggest challenge to marketing “Tape” will be finding means to hint at its high-octane content without actually spilling beans; pic itself keeps us almost wholly in the dark until midway, with a barrage of nasty curveballs still to come. (Recent campaigns have too often sacrificed onscreen surprise in favor of semispoiler hookage, as was the case –admittedly to great B.O. success –with “What Lies Beneath.”)
Like better-known legit pieces “Oleanna” and “Maiden,” “Tape” turns up the heat on a “routine” social interaction to reveal how consent, truth and justice are concepts as malleable — and unstable — as the humans who interpret them.
For all its clever manipulations, however, “Tape” feels less a wolfish polemic in dramatic sheep’s clothing; characters and dialogue have an insecure, real-world feel to them (the occasional overdose of Mamet-like stammerspeak aside) that offsets any schematic undercurrent.
Yea, more admirably, “Tape” is often very funny, its situational and spoken wit exposing character foibles without tipping into condescension or show-off falsity.
Where recent screen black comedies have relied upon using one-dimensional figures as fate’s (or the filmmakers’) pawns, Linklater & co. have created a true gray-zone comedy: One that’s alternately hilarious and harrowing (when not both at once) because its guilty/accusing characters are full of three-dimensional contradictions.
Perfs are perfectly pitched all around. Hawke, arguably never better than in his Linklater films (“Before Sunrise,” “The Newton Boys”), hits a new level here. Snide, vainglorious, with a hint of the middle-aged party-boy paunch to come, Vince is a spectacular screwup whose comic possibilities the actor revels in — yet the bad-boy postures are always just that, a rakish cover for desperate immaturity.
Limning a man who’s by contrast very much the more-responsible-than-thou “grownup,” Leonard charts the erosion of that facade inch by inch, rendering Johnny’s trial by fire painful as well as deserved.
Thurman, uncorseted from her disappointing recent costume roles, reminds that she’s one of our most skillful screen thesps, not just an upmarket beauty.
Downplaying her looks, she skitters across a very slippery slope here, maintaining workaday credibility even as Amy proves anything but a passive “victim.”
It’s worth noting that “Tape” attacks issues of sexual exploitation more vividly than many so-called “edgy” pics of late — with virtually no nudity or graphic pantomime required to “illustrate the point.” (It also, ironically, registers as both more technically and intellectually engaging than Linklater’s concurrent Sundance preem, the rotoscope-animated philosophy course “Waking Life.”)
Going for a raw immediacy that might easily have turned claustrophobic, Linklater (“Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused”) chalks up yet another successful career left-turn. While limited to the single, dingily-colored motel bedroom (we never even see the entire bathroom), pic has a crackling visual rhythm, with brilliant editing (Sandra Adair) and camerawork (Maryse Alberti) that themselves contribute no few sly, exposing laughs.
There’s no attempt to hide the vid format, though textures may change somewhat with eventual 35mm transfer (not yet done by Sundance preem). Absence of music beyond sardonic opening/closing credit song choices was a canny decision.