Richard Linklater boldly experimented with Tape, to mixed results
Richard Linklater is one of the few American directors currently working who defies auteur theory. Refusing to make the same time and time again, Linklater’s extended filmography includes a romantic trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), teen comedy (Dazed and Confused), mainstream family (School of Rock), and Oscar-winning drama (Boyhood). In-between his more notable affair, Linklater has proved a far more daring and experimental visionary than most of his contemporaries. In the same year as his beautiful if incredibly indulgent (read: dull) philosophical animation Waking Life, Linklater directed and released Tape, which in many ways is a total contrast; a deliberately harsh, ugly film with barely an ounce of fat.
Confined to one sleazy motel room, Tape brings together two old school friends who couldn’t be more different. Vincent, played by regular Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, is a manic waster and drug addict full of bitterness and regret. Jon, played by Dead Poets’ Society star Robert Sean Leonard (one for the ‘Where-Are-They-Now?’ list), is a semi-successful filmmaker who clearly sees himself as better than Vince. After some listless small talk and underlying tension, Vince begins to needle Jon about his relationship with Vince’s high school girlfriend Amy. Jon initially dismisses it, until Vince asks him if he raped her. From there, Tape spirals into a dark, morally complex game of truth and lies, made only more complex by the appearance of Amy herself, played by Uma Thurman.
As a piece of experimental cinema, Tape is certainly interesting. Shot on grainy digital, the film shares the same harsh, amateurish look of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled or Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. In fact, Tape is close to qualifying as a Dogme 95 film, due to its low production values, lack of music, and simplistic camera movement. Adapted from a play by Stephen Belber, Tape favours dialogue over action, and there is a lot of dialogue. Vince’s interrogation, Jon’s well-versed explanations for his teenage actions, Amy’s constant questioning; this is a three-way game of cat and mouse in which it’s impossible to decide who’s right, wrong, or even morally decent.
The increasingly difficult roles are all performed capably by the cast. Hawke is as good as always playing a total burnout who spends the film slowly snorting more and more cocaine. Leonard makes you question why he didn’t get more roles, Jon constantly flipping from reliable to sleazy to pathetic. Perhaps best of all is Thurman, rarely given great roles outside of Tarantino films. Amy is almost impossible to predict as a character, keeping the audience unsure as to whether she really is affected or just playing a brutal game. It’s possible Thurman is playing a character playing a character, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Even at 86 minutes, however, Tape feels stretched taut. Dialogue films can work; Linklater proved that with the Before… trilogy. When Belber’s words are really spat with venom, and the language cuts to the bone, Tape is pretty engrossing, and certainly some of the most dramatic work of Linklater’s career. There are just too many stretches where the conversation wanders in circles or simply stands still, and after the emotional fireworks of Hawke’s initial accusation, Tape has a long, slow middle section. Only Thurman’s appearance kickstarts the film back into a higher gear. With more consistently great dialogue, or an even shorter running time, Tape would be an experiment that worked wonders. Linklater is a talented director, but even he struggles to adapt a real time, one set, three person play into a dynamic film. An interesting experiment and a solid film, but not a complete success.
By Harry Ford