Two old high school friends reunite in a out of town motel. Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) has grudgingly taken a break from promoting his film at the local film festival. Vince (Ethan Hawke) is a petty drug dealer with a hidden agenda. He manipulates their usual banter towards a dark subject from both their pasts. Did Jon rape Vince's former girlfriend? And does Jon know that she is the assistant DA in the very same town he has brought his low budget opus to?
Richard Linklater is a director who has pioneered an admirable career from making slice of life cinema that does not conform to narrative conventions and deals with big questions within his low key remit. To stop his brand of film spiralling out of control (as he allowed so fantastically with the inspirational Waking Life (2001)) he often limits his films to a concise time frame, generally 24 hours or less. Here in an attempt to prove the democratising and visual power of the DV format he constricts himself even tighter. Tape is set in one room, with just three characters, in (as far as I can ascertain) real time. It is the second film of his to be faithfully based on a play. While SubUrbi@ (1996) pushed at its stage origins by shifting locations and rejigging the source materials' chronology, Tape utilises no such concessions. You are trapped in the room with Jon, a character who initially seems the most sympathetic and therefore identifiable but is gradually pummelled down by the verbal and kinetic manoeuvres of his old friend.
Unless you're a fan of mid-western motel interior design, this is essentially a performance piece. The cast has to struggle with some stage bound moments but generally avoid the conventional. Leonard is fine enough to never stumble into the reptilian aspects his character would inevitably expel if an A-lister was cast in his role. When he refers to his crime as "excessive, verbal persuasion", his delivery is brimming with naiveté and penitence. Hawke, is even more curiously cast being a poor man's (in situation rather than performance) Tyler Durden when he'd usually inhabit the actionless subject of such an attack. His twitchy torrent of interrogation matches Brad Pitt's finest performance yet never falls into a parody of that iconic star turn. Uma Thurman as the late-comer Amy acts more as a breath of fresh air after we have spent an hour with the "excessive, verbal persuader" and the aimless crusader of truth. Her role is poorly thought out and the character has an unreal air of deux ex machina about her to really convince. The sparks come from the gradual deterioration of a friendship on screen. All that killed the two boys love of each other has happened before the first can of warm beer has been opened but in the room we never leave, the two seperate entities that are Vince and Jon realise this. As dark as the plotline and themes are the best moments are in the last sparks of this decaying relationship.
Linklater made the film to show off digital's capabilities. In interviews Hawke has revealed his director was scared of revealing that his drama was not shot on film. The myth that DV's lack of grain quality means that its an ugly way to make films is both supported and proved pointless by this exercise. Linklater's use of the burgeoning format draws the viewer so near to the dirt and grime of the situation that the cinematography has a compelling pull missing from even the most frenzied frames in the likes of Saving Private Ryan (1998) or Black Hawk Down (2001). An extreme close up of the bobbling on Vince's socks creates a landscape more vivid and unfamiliar than anything George Lucas managed in Attack of the Gigabytes. Truth be told, that film was also shot on DV but used the computerised nature of the format to layer on effect after effect. There's just something more alien about Linklater's capturing of eyecrust and shaving rash than any Naboo sunset. We are not used to seeing such imperfection on the big screen. It is this proximity that will make Tape far too claustrophobic for most audiences, but the film visually persuades even if the verbal often appears mannered.
Reviewed by Bob Carroll
Reader comments about Tape
paulhjazz (Email address withheld) writes:
This film confirms to me that Ethan is one of the best actors in the business, quietly doing his thing without the big noise that Cruise & co seem to rely on. Before Sunrise/set also confirm this.
In this film the claustrophobia of the setting is perfect for the 'warts and all' digital format. I found the experience difficult, gripping and unsettling – very theatrical, but also edited in quite a sophisticated way to make it filmic. As Bob C states, the threat of violence was a lot more real than the usual glossy cgi-fest. Ethan’s character suggested a pervading sense of uncertainty and menace. For some reason the format made me feel that, if there were an explosion of violence, there could be no room for special effects, the punches really would connect and cause real pain. Great stuff.
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