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Oeuvre is an in-depth examination of the entire body of work of an important director.

On paper, Tape sounds like a director taking it easy: a movie based on a play by Stephen Belber, shot on digital cameras with only three actors in it, taking place in a motel room. It seems like an easy feat compared to Waking Life, Slacker-like with big philosophical ideas and rotoscoped animation, but remember that you have to sustain an audience’s interest for an entire 90 minutes. With less moving parts in your cinematic machine, one of the gears falling off is fatal. Still, in some ways Linklater is taking it easy, not having to worry about locations and multiple actors and animating people, but challenging himself by stripping drama down to its basics: three people in a room, each of whom want something the other won’t give. If you can’t make that work, then you have no business writing or making films.

When you make a movie about three people talking, it helps to fill the roles with proper actors unless you’re doing some kind of mumblecore thing. Ethan Hawke gets the most to do as Vince, the guy who pulls the strings for most of the movie. Robert Sean Leonard as John mostly reacts to Hawke but proves effective when he shows his true colors later in the film. Uma Thurman plays Amy, the oft-coveted Harry Lime role — where you’re all the characters talk about for most of the film so that the audience is really, really impressed when you finally show up.

Ultimately, Tape is about power struggle, and not just because rape is the topic. Vince is trapped in his go-nowhere life as a drug dealer and volunteer fireman, is hung up on a relationship with Amy that also went nowhere. In John, he sees success: not only as a documentary filmmaker but as the guy who ultimately beat Vince to Amy’s virginity. John, meanwhile, is a big ol’ prick who has set Vince up in this Michigan hotel room to see his success at the Lansing Film Festival and lectures him on what he’s doing with his life, which is oh so easy when you’re not the guy living the life in question. Vince has one card up his sleeve when it comes to John — a regrettable secret — and manages to use documentary against the documentarian in the form of a recorded confession.

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When Amy finally appears, the power shifts to her. Vince reveals himself as a manipulative bastard whose plan backfires tremendously. We also find out that John, who you kind of feel for during the first half of Tape, just wants to be in control — ever the film director — and Amy won’t let him have that control. He doesn’t really want to admit to anything; he just wants the self-satisfaction of damning himself rather than letting other people do it. This makes for a hilarious moment where Amy flat-out admits that John didn’t rape her, to which John replies “Yes, I did!” Amy, more than a little miffed that she’s an object in this power struggle, proves the ultimate manipulator, but not in a bad way: these guys totally deserve it.

All this takes place in real time, by the way. It’s a move that really increases the tension, especially when we find out that Amy’s on her way to the motel and Vince just keeps John from leaving the room through sheer conversation. It’s practically Hitchcockian, which makes even more sense when you realize the tape is the Macguffin.

Linklater’s best decision, however, is shooting the Tape on grainy digital. Shot on film, the movie would have suffered a bit from the cognitive dissonance of seeing a celluloid movie that doesn’t have multiple locations that so often evokes the thought, “Hey, this must have originally been a play.” Linklater is the other buffer because he would make a movie about three people talking in a room.

by Danny Djeljosevic

Other Linklater Oeuvre Features

Waking Life

The Newton Boys

subUrbia

Before Sunrise

Dazed and Confused

Slacker

The Early Years
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