Review: Tape (2001)

"You think I'm a dick?"
"Uh, no.  But I do know that occasionally you have a tendency to act in a phallic fashion."

Few films I’ve seen recently have left as much of an impression on me as Richard Linklater’s Tape.  Despite being a fan of a great deal of Linklater’s work, I was apprehensive about sitting through a film built around what might at first seem like a cheap gimmick: the entire thing takes place in a single room.  Linklater has been successful with his character-driven pieces in the past, but his experiments don’t always pan out the way one might hope – A Scanner Darkly, which involved a unique process of rotoscoping animation over the actors, was a dismal experience from start to finish.  And before you start sending me hate mail, yes, I’m aware Linklater first used the effect in Waking Life, but I have yet to see that film and can only hope that it fared better than its successor.

Released in 2001, Tape is a micro-budget film shot on digital video – it looks like Linklater went out and bought a camcorder at Best Buy and decided to shoot a movie.  Based on a play written by Stephen Belber and sent to Linklater by frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke, Tape takes place in a single hotel room.  There are three characters.  It’s a simple set-up, with not much in the way of what mainstream viewers would call “action.”  Like many of the films in Linklater’s oeuvre, most notably the Before Sunrise/Before Sunset duology, this is a film that relies first and foremost on dialogue.

If that sounds boring to you, don’t worry: Tape is absolutely riveting.

The plot follows Vince (Ethan Hawke) and Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), two old friends who meet in a hotel room and reminisce about their high school years.  When one of them confesses to a past offense with a third party, the other reveals that he’s been recording the entire conversation and plans to hand over the tape to the person involved. 

This is a film that touches on several universal themes – friendship, justice, time, memory and the perception of truth – and reveals how a single action can resonate with different people in different ways.  The titular tape is Truth, or at the very least one character’s perception of truth.  As long as it exists, this truth is no longer hidden, and it is thus capable of impacting multiple people, and perhaps not for the better.  As the core element of the film, it acts as a wonderfully ambiguous reminder that the best things in life can also simultaneously be the worst.  Our characters will come to see the tape in all of its dimensions – it may be the sole provider of truth, and yet at the same time this is a truth that might be best left alone.  And is truth necessarily the same thing as fact?

Linklater’s down-and-dirty filmmaking gives the performers room to breathe while keeping things moving at a brisk pace.  The editing and camerawork is simple, but effective.  By setting the entire film in a single room, he forces the audience to confront the characters and their situation.  They will be forced to deal with their pasts, and so will we.  There is no escape.  It’s claustrophobic, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s not pretty – but these things never are, so why try to dress up the darkness in a prettier disguise?  Digital video is the perfect medium for this kind of material, adding to the drama with its limited color palette and documentary-style atmosphere. 

Dead Poets’ Society alums Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard carry most of the film’s weight on their shoulders, and they succeed magnificently.  Their performances take advantage of the simplicity of the dialogue and emphasize the layers of meaning behind each word.  Body language and tone is extremely important with a script of this variety, for frequently what a character says might not be what he or she is actually thinking and feeling.  When the arrival of Uma Thurman signals the beginning of the third act, things get even more complicated.  Can people really change?  Is it possible to “do the right thing” without any hint of selfish reasoning behind it?  There are no easy answers in Tape, and it might require multiple viewings to fully come to grips with the changes of tide of each character’s motivations.

Why I don’t hear Tape mentioned more often in film circles is beyond me.  As a play-to-movie adaptation, it is masterful.  As an experiment in low-budget filmmaking, it is artful.  As an exploration of human relationships and the subjectivity of reality, it is thought-provoking.  And as a film overall, it is just plain good.