The digital paint hasn’t even dried on Richard Linklater’s animated feature Waking Life, but as if to prove he’s no slacker, the director already has a new film in theaters. Like Waking Life, Tape was shot on low-rent digital video, but visually the two pictures couldn’t be more different. While Life‘s video image was layered with stunning computer-generated graphics in post-production, Tape looks as if it’s been soaking in formaldehyde on a dark closet shelf for six months. In this case, however, the murky visuals are an apt match for the squalid setting and narrative ambiguities.
Based on a stage play by Stephen Belber, Tape takes place entirely inside one cramped, dingy motel room at the Motor Palace in Lansing, Michigan. The room has been rented by Vince (Ethan Hawke), in town for the Lansing Film Festival, in which the directorial debut of his old high school chum Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard) is slated to premiere. When Johnny stops by to pick Vince up for dinner, he is slowly drawn into a confrontational mind game with his longtime friend. Vince, a volunteer fire fighter and full-time dope dealer, has already fueled up on beer and marijuana, and urges John to do the same as they spar over their divergent worldviews. The conversation turns to Amy (Uma Thurman), Vince’s high school sweetheart, who dumped him only to hook up with Johnny towards the end of their senior year. Vince probes and cajoles his friend until Johnny blurts out what Vince has been dying to hear for ten years – that his fling with Amy was at best "coerced" and at worst, date rape.
Then comes the sucker punch. Vince reveals that he has surreptitiously recorded their entire conversation, including Johnny’s confession. Worse yet for Johnny, Amy is on her way over to the motel, having also been invited to dinner by Vince. Vince plans to play the tape for Amy unless Johnny apologizes for his actions a decade earlier. To reveal what happens from this point on would be unsporting; suffice it to say that Amy does eventually show up, along with her own set of tantalizing revelations.
In its intimacy, intensity and table-turning sexual politics, Tape is reminiscent of David Mamet’s Oleanna (also a play-turned-film). Both works toy with the ambiguity of memory and the futility of determining whose recollections equate to the correct interpretation of events. But the most surprising thing about Linklater’s film, given the plot description and grimy Dogme-influenced method, is how funny so much of it is. In the self-absorbed, emotionally immature jerk Vince, Ethan Hawke has found the role he was born to play. He’s a thoroughly insufferable presence, which is precisely what is required. Anyone with an idiot friend who just can’t seem to be dislodged will identify with Robert Sean Leonard’s exasperation. And Uma Thurman gives what may be her best performance to date; she’s continually one step ahead of both her co-stars and the audience, and negotiates the trickiest emotional turns along the way.
Tape has a cumulative power – it’s slow to get going, and those with little patience for Linklater’s all-talk/no-action aesthetic may resign themselves to a dreary slog without realizing that the narrative is already gathering momentum. Stick with it. The movie’s look may be drab, but its rewards are anything but.