“Tape,” a guerrilla indie drama that confronts some of the ways sexual harassment has been embedded in the entertainment industry, begins with Rosa (Annarosa Mudd) getting ready to go undercover — but really, she’s dressing for battle. After rigging herself up with a hidden camera, she mutilates her body in homage to Lavinia in “Titus Andronicus,” piercing her own tongue and using a razor blade to carve a bracelet of blood around her wrist. She then shaves off her long curly brown hair, leaving a scalp that’s more patchy than chic, and completes the look with dark magenta lipstick, a long black “Matrix” coat, and big sunglasses. (Actually, what completes the look is her incredibly pale skin, which gives her the appearance of a ghost avenger.)
She then heads to a reality-show audition, pretending to be an actress in the waiting room. But really, she’s there to surreptitiously film what she sees, especially once she connects with Pearl (Isabelle Fuhrman), an ambitious but naive young actress. We’re not sure, at first, what happened to Rosa. But clearly something did; we can guess that she got burned, badly. She’s like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo crossed with a crafty young voyeur out of Brian De Palma.
“Tape,” written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier (“Hounddog”), is a bare-bones movie, very minimalist and stripped down, yet that’s part of its stubborn intrigue. It leads us, step by step, into the swamp of sexual harassment, dramatizing how it can emerge from the insidious, layered, power-driven zone of erotic image-making that’s part of what drives our entertainment culture. And the film accomplishes this without a lot of muss and fuss. “Bombshell” aside, “Tape” is one of the very first dramas of the #MeToo era to confront, head-on, what harassment looks like and how it really works. Yet even as the film feels up-to-the-minute, it’s been made with a certain threadbare, streets-of-New-York punk feminist mythologizing that may remind you, at times, of the films of Beth B.
Rosa is out to entrap her old tormenter, a producer-manager named Lux (Tarek Bishara), who’s about to ensnare Pearl in the same exploitative web. Pearl doesn’t make the cut for the reality show. But when she’s crying on the sidewalk, Lux comes up and offers to take her on as a client at his management company. They meet for coffee, and he gives her a script for a screen test that, he says, they’ll film on a real location — which turns out to be a barely furnished loft with Restoration Hardware touches and a bed sitting under a single dangling designer light bulb. At this point we’re going, “Uh-oh.” But Pearl isn’t, and that’s part of the drama. She’s so eager to please her new manager that she follows him, step by step, down a path she shouldn’t.
Rosa has already snuck into the loft to plant two hidden cameras, and she can see the video feed on her iPad, which lends the film an abstract suspense. But the true tension comes from what an expertly written and acted sequence unfolds in there. As Lux, Tarek Bishara is like David Strathairn playing a bad ’70s soap opera actor moonlighting as a porn stud. Lux may be a cad, but he’s not dumb. He’s a kind of Method perv who comes on as an acting guru, and has worked out a whole scheme for why Pearl (or, for that matter, any other actress) should sleep with him. “Some of my tactics, methods, and strategies,” he says, “will go against everything you know about the entertainment industry, and the craft of acting in general.”
A line like that should be a parade of red flags, but what the film shows us is that Lux’s pitch to Pearl is all about her, about how the actresses who make it are those who can tap into their hidden well of ancient erotic energy. At every stage, he gives her the choice (he makes it clear that she can say no), but the implication is: If you don’t do this, the business has no use for you. It’s harassment as a kind of mind game, and when Pearl, rationalizing what’s going on, admits that she has slept with strangers for less, we see how well the game works.
Lux is a serial harasser, but he’s meant to be the garden-variety version, and the film uses him symbolically as the tip of the toxic iceberg. At the end, when Rosa confronts him (in a face-off at gunpoint that’s way too farfetched to summon the power it’s going for), she gives a speech that invokes “Titus Andronicus,” Polanski and Bill Cosby, and rape culture in general. But her message about the cosmic continuity of male sexual criminality feels too broad-brush after the pinpoint disturbance of the encounter we’ve been watching. “Tape” wants to be a scream of vengeful rage that echoes down through the ages of abuse. But the film is best when it’s simply recording one instance of it.