I’m a fan of what my friend Jen calls “verbal volleyball” cinema. Though I haven’t reviewed a film in this vein since My Dinner With Andre, I’m in love with films that are just two (sometimes three) characters talking for more or less the entire film’s run time. In fact, one of the first films I ever gave top marks to, Conversations with Other Women, fits perfectly into that genre. And I’ve highly enjoyed other similarly structured films including the Steve Buscemi-helmed Interview and the early Robert Downey Jr. movie, Two Girls and a Guy. While 2001’s Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) film Tape isn’t quite Conversations or My Dinner with Andre, it’s an intellectual mind-game that provoked a visceral emotional reaction.
I suffer from slight social anxiety that usually only manifests itself when people behave in ways so removed from polite social expectations that it begins to make me uncomfortable. My anxiety in these situations manifests into a legitimate sense of physical pain and a shortness of breath, and weirdly, this carries over to fictional situations. So, when I say that there are moments in Tape where the film elicits such a pained, uncomfortable reaction that I nearly had to turn the film off, it should speak volumes to how honest and brutally dark the subject matter can get. Tape may only be a 90 minute long conversation in terms of its plot, but at its core, it’s a gritty and mature look at harrowing topics.
Shot on a very cheap home digital camera, Tape is the conversation between two (and then a third) friends who haven’t seen each other in ten years. Vince (Reality Bites‘s Ethan Hawke) is a drug-dealing, assistant firefighter with violent tendencies that has just lost his girlfriend and has no plans for his life. He’s in Lansing, MI (we believe at first) to support his best high school friend, Jon (The Age of Innocence‘s Robert Sean Leonard), whose self-produced film is in a small, local film festival. But as the two drink beers and talk in Vince’s cramped hotel room, it’s clear that Vince has ulterior motives as he tries to get Jon to admit to some indiscretion in his past with a girl they both dated, Amy (Kill Bill‘s Uma Thurman), and it isn’t long before startling admissions and explosive accusations are made.
And if that plot description sounds dull as hell, sorry. That’s what the movie is. Based off of Stephen Belber’s play (I highly suspected that it had been a play first while watching it), Tape is a forty-five minute conversation between Vince and Jon that gets increasingly darker until finally Amy shows up and then it’s an even darker and more uncomfortable conversation between the three of them as they explore their pasts and aspects of their lives they all wish they could just leave forgotten. Other than one minor tussle between Jon and Vince, there is no action. Just conversation, and thankfully, after a bit of a slow start, the conversations really take off.
One of the many reasons that Tape is able to be so fascinating despite its simple execution is the terrific performances from its three-person cast. I’m continually astounded by the fact that Ethan Hawke isn’t one of the biggest stars in Hollywood today because not only does he have classic leading man looks, but he is also a supremely talented actor. His turn as Vince is simply feral. Vince is a hyperactive bundle of misdirected energy and anger, and Ethan Hawke creates as much tension as the writing by tapping into the audience’s understanding that Vince is just seconds away from exploding. It’s a marvelous performance from a consistently under-rated actor.
Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard were both good even if neither of them were able to live up to the impossibly high standards set by Ethan Hawke. Uma doesn’t show up until much later in the film, and it’s a while before you realize the darkness lurking beneath the surface of Robert Sean Leonard’s apparently squeaky clean film director, but once they have the chance to display the complexity and darkness of their own characters, Thurman and Leonard deliver much of the emotional power of the film. In fact, Amy and Jon’s verbal sparring when they finally go head to head later in the film provided the moments that made me so physically uncomfortable that I worried I might have to turn the film off. Thankfully, I powered through.
It’s a shame then that Tape is so completely hideous to look at. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that Tape ranks up there with Border Radio as one of the most aesthetically unpleasing shot films I’ve ever watched for this blog. The handheld digital camera Linklater uses makes the film look like a poorly made home film, and the man had already made Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused at this point, so you know he could have afforded better equipment. It was a stylistic choice and one I felt was ill-suited to this movie. It didn’t do much to enhance the intimacy of the picture which I’m sure was his intention.
But, if you’re a fan of the “verbal volleyball” subgenre of film, you should certainly give Tape a try. When it first begins, you may be at a loss for what the point of this movie is, but take my word for it when I say that the pay-off is worth it. Ethan Hawke is positively spell-binding, and though it takes a while for the others to find their footing, they provide the perfect counterpoint to his simmering energy. If you find yourself experiencing physical discomfort in awkward situations, Tape has them in spades and the sheer torture that it’s climactic confrontation caused me is the best commendation I can give to this film’s emotional veracity.
Final Score: B+