Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001)

Richard Linklater's Tape is a taut and claustrophobic character study, a filmed version of Stephen Belber's one act play of the same name. It takes place in real time over one night, entirely within the walls of a single, seedy hotel room, as three old high school friends are reunited in an unexpected way to sort out the details of a troubling incident from the past, one that may or may not have even occured. It's a film whose unornate, simple setting and facile premise belies numerous emotional complexities and resonant human themes, and for me it stands out as one of the more underrated spots in Linklater's prolific and notable career.

The first sound we hear is a beer can being cracked open, and the first image we see is the same beer being poured right into a toilet. We then get a shot of Ethan Hawke's character, Vince, pouring the beer out with one hand while chugging a full beer with his other. It's a brilliant bit to open with, as the movie has barely begun, and already the audience is being challenged by this illogical act to question the motivations of a character whose intentions will be nothing but murky and questionable throughout the film's duration. Vince fidgets anxiously around his hotel, snapping his fingers and doing push-ups in an all around nervous state, as he anticipates the arrival of his oldest friend Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), an independent filmmaker who is in town for the Lansing film festival to premier his new movie. Jon arrives shortly after the film's opening moments, and is happy to see Vince, who's traveled a long way from Oakland to spend the eve of Jon's big premier with him, getting some drinks and dinner, and catching up.

The pair have clearly hit separate paths since their high school days: Jon is poshly dressed and carries himself with an air of intellectual sophistication, while Vince is a gruff deadbeat; abrasive, aggressive, immature and dressed in boxer shorts with a wife beater tank. Jon casts more than one ambivalent look towards Vince's direction in their initial interactions, the first clue for the audience that there possibly lies a crevice beneath the friendly veneer of their reunion. The two sit around, smoke a joint, and chat. Jon tries to convince Vince that his occupation as a drug dealer is immature and beneath him. Vince mentions that Amy, a former girlfriend of his, lives right there in Lansing, he's just found out. Jon is surprised to learn this, and after some slight arguing, the truth behind their tension finally comes out: after Vince and Amy broke up back in high school, Jon slept with her one night at a party, and Vince has held a grudge ever since. But is that the whole truth? Vince begins interrogating Jon with an alarming urgency regarding suspicions that he actually raped Amy that night. It's here that the film takes a fascinating turn and Hawke begins to shine in one of the best roles of his career, revealing Vince layer by layer as a cunning and calculating mind with an agenda. He admits that he's gotten Jon stoned on purpose to make it easier for him to spill the truth, and after a particularly aggressive line of questioning, Vince finally gets him to admit that he did in fact rape Amy that night, and that their intimacy was hardly consensual.

Linklater shot Tape in digital, mostly using a handheld camera, making it one of the earlier films to be shot entirely in the format, and it works quite well. Between the digital photography, the handheld technique, and the cramped quarters of the hotel, there is a gritty and intensely personal feel to watching these characters interact. The scenes with Hawke interrogating Leonard are shot in single takes, with the handheld camera swooshing back and forth between the two as their exchange becomes increasingly heated and accusatory, and the effect gives the words a sharp, stabbing quality, that alongside the gravity of the situation being discussed, makes the scene exponentially more uncomfortable than it has any business being. Vince keeps a bag filled with drugs in the corner of the room, checking on them periodically, and after finally getting the admission of rape out of Jon's mouth, Vince reveals that along with the drugs, the bag also contains a running tape recorder, one that has just captured Jon's confession. Jon is floored by this sucker punch act of betrayal, along with the decimation of a life long friendship, now gone in the blink of an eye. Vince couldn't care less about their friendship, it becomes apparent, and makes clear his motivations at hand: he's in fact already spoken with Amy, and she'll be arriving at the hotel soon for what she thinks is a simple dinner with Vince. With tape in hand, Vince aims to pressure Jon into admitting and apologizing to Amy in person for his actions that one night. Of course, Vince has less than altruistic reasons for doing all of this; he is a man whose ego was profoundly cracked and wounded by what he saw as a betrayal from a best friend and girlfriend, and he seeks revenge and a form of closure through this manipulative plan.

Amy (Uma Thurman) arrives, and the stage is set for Vince's grand scheme to come together. The suspense builds as we wait for the issue to inevitably be brought up, and when it finally is, Belber's screenplay throws a curveball: Amy remembers the events of the night entirely different, as a completely consensual experience, just a little rough is all. And now it is Amy's turn to wield the power of the Incident, a power Vince initially held over Jon through his interrogation, and now which the incredulous Amy holds over both of the men, as she hits the pair with some harsh truths, and probes their individually selfish motivations for getting to the root of what happened that night. Since it never becomes clear what exactly did happen, it's obvious that the goal here is to explore the theme of subjective experience, and how multiple people can come away from a mutual experience with entirely different views of what happened. Can a rape exist without an accuser? Amidst all of this, the film manages to touch on a profound human sadness: how sex, the most intimate of all physical acts, can still be a cold and disconnected encounter when experienced between people who are not in love. Amy, however, was in love that night, and as such feels entitled to the last word. As she finally tells Jon, who continues to apologize for a rape that he's not being accused of, "Your problem is that you want the last word. But it's not yours to have."

The greatest success of Tape is that, throughout it all, the film feels entirely believable. The dialogue is realistic and unaffected, and the characters remain true to how someone would probably act in a situation such as this. Even Hawke's character, the Machiavellian man-child Vince, is believable in his over-the-top obnoxiousness and immaturity. Deep-seated resentments are a dangerous and volatile thing, and can affect behavior in fundamentally bizarre ways; I've seen it myself. At 86 minutes, Tape doesn't overstay it's welcome, and as compelling as the action that occurs on the screen is, what's going on internally with the characters at any given moment is of significantly more interest, thus giving even the quieter moments throughout the running time a complexity of their own. Linklater's body of work is eclectic and impressive, including the classic high school stoner flick Dazed and Confused, the rotoscoping mind benders Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, and Before Sunset and After Sunset, a pair of films I consider to be among the greatest from the Romance genre in at least the last quarter century. Tape intelligently tackles such hefty themes as human subjectivity, memory, resentment and guilt, and while it lacks the flash and high profile of some of Linklater's other works, I wouldn't pause to mention it in the same breath as those excellent films. It's a real sleeper within a great career, and a gripping, resonant experience.


Sam Juliano said...

"It's a film whose unornate, simple setting and facile premise belise numerous emotional complexities and resonant human themes, and for me it stands out as one of the more underrated spots in Linklater's prolific and notable career."

Drew, I haven't seen this particular Linklater, but that didn't stop me from reading this extraordinary review, an exhaustive defense that stands mightily on how to pen a film essay with acute insights, meticulous attention and passionate appreciation.

DAZED AND CONFUSED and A WAKING LIFE are my favorite Linklaters, at the expense of slighting the two celebrated mumblecore films, that I've yet to embrace.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks for the comment Sam, I'm glad my enthusiasm comes across in the writing; I think the movie is just excellent.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on Dazed and Confused and Waking Life, and would strongly suggest you catch A Scanner Darkly, if you haven't yet. I'm not sure if I like it more than Waking Life necessarily, but it uses the rotoscoping technique in a much more functional and interesting way.

It's funny, I've never heard Before Sunset and Before Sunrise referred to as mumblecore before. I think they are much more in the tradition of Rohmer's elegant, orderly films, with their emphasis on the intoxicating role language can play in a romance. Those two films have always hit me really hard for some reason, I just find them remarkably honest and poignant.

Stephen Russell-Gebbett said...

I haven't seen this film, Drew, but I just wanted to ask you what you thought of LADY BLUE SHANGHAI as your header image seems to come from it - to me it's both wonderful and cheesy, polished and amateurish, as if a hybrid of Lynch and Wong Kar Wai

Drew McIntosh said...

Stephen, I enjoyed Lady Blue Shanghai just fine. I like how visually and thematically it clearly ties into both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, and of course there are moments of beautifully mysterious imagery (i.e. the jade and pearls shot) to go along with the typically brooding Lynchian music. I of course was also quite fond of the shot that I decided to use for my new banner (thanks for noticing!)

And for my money, Cotillard has one of the most interesting faces in the business. I just love the work she's been doing in DV lately, and thought she was great with the little she had to do here.

And your Wong Kar-wai comparison is an apt one; in particular that kinetic slow motion used in the last half is clearly reminiscent of his work.

I doubt you'll find anyone claiming that it will go down as anything other than an interesting little curiosity within Lynch's body of work - after all, it's still a commercial, and certainly not even close to the best short he's ever made - but Lynch has been my favorite director for the better part of my life since I watched Twin Peaks on tv as a kid, and anything new from the man at this point is always welcomed and worth taking time out for.

Simon said...

See, I wish Uma Thurman would make movies like this again.

Drew McIntosh said...

Agreed, Simon. I've always enjoyed Uma in pretty much everything I've seen her in; her distinctly unique and appealing look provide a memorable screen presence. But I think the fact that she is also just a damn good actress - as evidenced by her work in quieter, more character driven pieces like Tape - can sometimes gets lost in her more flashier roles.

jamie said...

fantastic review of a seriously criminally under seen film. It's really fantastic and so taut. the beauty of how cheaply and minimally a film can be made.

funny last night I watched a film that is similar in this regard, 'Alexandra's Project' (by Rolf de heer) from 2003 that still has me buzzing. You need to seek it out asap, I think you'll love it.

Drew McIntosh said...

Thanks for the comment, Jamie. It sounds like we are definitely in agreement here.

I haven't yet seen Alexandra's Project, but I looked it up and it really does sound quite interesting. As it were, I've only seen one Rolf de Heer film to date (The Tracker), which I liked an awful lot. He's been one of the director's on my radar who I've been meaning to devote more time to, maybe I'll take your recommendation as a means to get started on more of his stuff.

Thanks for stopping by!