FEW filmmakers have the sheer nerve to make a movie with just three characters and set it totally within the cramped confines of a motel room.
Richard Linklater was bold enough to do just that with Tape, in which the three points of a love triangle are reunited after many years and spend an uncomfortable hour or so picking over their pasts.
Vincent (Ethan Hawke) has his own reasons for setting up a rendezvous with his one-time best pal John Salter (Robert Sean Leonard). While life has passed Vincent by, leaving him a drugged-up loser, John has blossomed into a well-rounded, artistic guy whose latest movie is being featured at a local film festival.
John kind of expects his pal to be the same spiky, aggressive, full-on individual he always was. What he doesn’t expect is to be placed under a microscope and quizzed mercilessly about the night he took the virginity of Vincent’s High School love, Amy.
It turns out John’s gentlemanly ways may hide a dark secret about that drunken night at a friend’s party. Was it really the rough sex John describes, or is the word he cannot utter really spelled r.a.p.e.? Either way, Vincent is determined to get to the bottom of the story.
Shot ‘guerrilla style’ in real time, Tape is a piece of theatrical dynamite that works equally effectively on film. Hawke persuades, cajoles and finally threatens Leonard into coming clean about an incident he has largely wiped from his mind, while the power games in which he indulges make for riveting viewing.
Resembling Mike Nichols’ filmed version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in its construction, Tape considers the fragility of the male ego, the Machiavellian nature of obsession and the manipulation, corruption and betrayal that love engenders in all of us.
Hawke, seemingly giving an impersonation of Nick Nolte, powers through the proceedings like a bull in a store-ful of fine Dresden, weedling what he needs from his reluctant companion via every trick up his sleeve.
Leonard, looking unsettlingly like a male version of Jessica Lange, parries every thrust and dances around the periphery of the issue like a cat on hot bricks, always seeking to avoid confession.
Somewhat slow to start, Tape builds to a potentially shattering climax in its third act, as Uma Thurman turns the tables on her former friends. The already edgy and twisty plot takes a different direction and the balance of power shifts from Hawke (Thurman’s real-life husband) to Leonard to Thurman. With the action set only in one room it is impossible to escape the urgency and immediateness of the energy slowly building to crisis point.
Linklater cleverly punctuates the plot with peaks and troughs – highs and lows of dramatic tension versus pauses for effect – that lull both characters and viewer into false senses of security. Then the story (taken from the play by Stephen Belber) takes over again and nothing turns out quite as one expects.
A highly unusual film that is destined for a cult audience, Tape shows just why Linklater (the man behind Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life) is considered one of the brightest directors working in contemporary US cinema.
This one will keep you guessing until the final credits roll.