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Richard Linklater’s Tape

Look, I love explosions and car chases as much as the next guy.  Movies (well, some) are excellent at capturing events that we would never experience and making us feel like we vicariously lived through them.  I will never engage in a high-speed chase while shooting a gun through my blown out windshield, but I will certainly watch it happen.  However, I think movies are at their best not when they let us view a fantasy, but when they make a realistic situation just as compelling.  Tape, a film by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, to name the two most well-known of his movies) takes about ninety minutes of nothing but conversation and makes them not just interesting, but riveting.

The premise of Tape, based on a play by Stephen Belber who also did the screenplay, is very simple.  The entire film takes place in a single hotel room.  Literally.  As in, there is no establishing shot of the outside of a hotel, or even a glimpse of a sign.  The small, cheap room, is the one and only place the characters of this film interact.  Also, there are only three characters.  Ethan Hawke plays Vince, an early thirty something who returns to his hometown of Lansing, Michigan to attend a film festival.  He does this because his best friend from his high school years, Jon Salter, is breaking into the business by having his first film premiere at said festival.  Robert Sean Leonard plays Jon (if the name sounds familiar but you can’t picture the face, Leonard plays Wilson on House) who shows up at the hotel to pick Vince up for dinner and from there the movies goes. The third character is Amy, played by Uma Thurman, who also went to high school with the two men.  Most importantly for this movie, she also had a relationship with both of them during high school as well.  She dated Vince for over a year before dumping him, then had a drunken sexual “encounter” with Jon at a weekend party near the end of senior year.

Ethan Hawke as Vince

I have to tread carefully around the plot, as I really feel like the less you know going in to the movie the better, but the issues the movie deals with in an even broad non spoilery sense are fascinating.  As Vince and Jon talk, Hawke and Leonard perfectly capture the feel of old friends trying to find the common ground that once so strongly bonded them together.  Or at least, Jon does.  It soon becomes clear that Vince, who opens the film chugging beer and doing push-ups in what appeared to be a bizarre preparation ritual before Jon shows up, isn’t really trying to reconnect with his old friend at all.  He has an agenda.  His goal is to get Jon to finally open up about what happened with him and Amy.  As the conversation gets more heated, the movie’s title becomes clear.  Without going in to spoilertastic details, we end up with Vince having a recording of Jon admitting that his fling with Amy might not have been strictly moral and at the very least is something he isn’t proud of.  At that point, Vince casually lets Jon know that he’s invited Amy over to this hotel as well and that he plans to give her the tape.

While I will not give away the exact details of what happened, I think the brilliant part of this movie is I couldn’t even if I tried.  While the movie on the surface is about these three characters and a specific event in their lives, the real issue it brings up is memory and perception.  If Jon, Vince, and Amy all remember the “party at the end of senior year” differently than each other, who is right?  The film never flashes back to the party, showing the audience the cliché “oh, the way it happened is actually how none of these characters remember!” that lesser films do.  That is what makes Tape different.  What actually happened that night is at this point irrelevant.  What matters now to Jon, Amy, and Vince, is the perception of that night they all have.  How has this event affected all their lives?  Why is it that high school, even ten years removed, can still bring up such intense memories and emotions?  How does one deal with being friends with somebody only because you used to be, when now as adults you are totally different people?  How should adults feel about potentially hurtful or stupid things they did as a child?  These are questions that Tape makes its audience consider.

Robert Sean Leonard as Jon

I got such a strong emotional reaction from the film primarily because of the excellence of all the actors involved.  Hawke plays Vince as almost manic and sort of insane at the start.  He does an excellent job of slowly revealing that while he is probably a little crazy, he’s crazy like a fox.  Thurman has a tough task, basically showing up halfway through the movie and having to instantly start throwing fastballs while the boys have spent the first part of the movie being able to throw some warm up pitches, but she handles it beautifully.  She is not just a plot point or contrivance so Hawke and Leonard can move the film forward.  Even though we spend much less time with her than either of them, she comes off as the most interesting of the three.

Previous to seeing this movie, I normally didn’t think of Leonard as somebody who was of the same acting caliber as Hawke or Thurman.  However, I think of the three performances, his is the most difficult and the best, and it makes me wish he was doing something else than just playing second fiddle to Hugh Laurie.  His range is the most impressive thing here, as he goes from cheery to concerned, angry, apologetic, confused, resolute all in the same relatively short film.  Of the three, his role is definitely the one I identified with the most.  While he is not a totally sympathetic character, I did find himself feeling a bit sorry for him.  He showed up to get an old friend  for dinner and soon after is the focus of what is probably the most emotionally harrowing night of his life.  That being said, I could easily say the same thing about any of the three characters, so any of you readers that have seen the film (or hopefully, watch the film after reading this) please chime in with which character you identified with the most.

Uma Thurman as Amy

I find it difficult to articulate what makes this movie so interesting without heavy spoilers.  There a number of scenes and lines that I want to point too and say “That was perfect!’, but I can’t.  Three characters talking about the past in a hotel room doesn’t sound all that interesting out of context.  Tape makes it work.  We have all had regrets about our past, friends we’ve fallen out of touch with, or memories we prefer not to think about.  To have all three of those things collide is powerful.  Tape takes that power, crams it into a tiny hotel room, and has three excellent actors pour their hearts out for the duration.  As I said before, riveting.

Note:  Tape is available through the Netflix instant streaming service, so next time you’re not sure what movie to watch and are looking for something a bit different, fire it up!  Also, I’d love to discuss the film in the comments section, but let us still be wary of spoilers.  I say it’s fine to put spoilers in your comment, but please put a big SPOILER tag at the start then.  I’d like anybody to be able to skip comments that could contain them if they want too.

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2 Responses

  1. Ahhh this film makes me miss the theater. I saw a two actor one scene play in college and it’s just amazing the amount of tension and drama you can cram into such a tight space.
    I was thrilled to see Robert Sean Leonard, he’s someone I’ve enjoy a lot over the years on House. There are some subtle similarities between Wilson and Jon though he his performance is much better here than on House, with few exceptions.
    Uma Thurman must have something for characters with the name Vincent. That made me laugh because I had forgotten she played Amy until the door opened. I kept expecting her to ask if Amy and Jon were square before she left (complete with the two finger drawing of course).
    I will agree with Elrood, from about half-way on the tension is so thick you’d have trouble cutting through it with a ginsu knife. It’s really a great little film and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t see it as a play.
    SPOILERS DOWN BELOW
    If you’ve been to a few plays you’ve heard the old adage, if there’s a gun above the mantle piece in Act I you can bet it’s going to be used in Act III. Well that crossed my mind when Vincent casually mentioned that Amy was a DA between puffs of grass. Also, why was Vincent pouring a beer down the drain at the beginning? I thought it was a nice way of letting the audience know that he was putting on a show. He wanted Jon to think he was farther gone than he was. Hence all the beer cans around the room.
    The one thing that bothered me, and I think it was intentional, is we never really learn what Vincent’s motivation is for all this. The mystery has clearly gotten under Amy’s skin as well by the end, and I found myself cheering her on when she made the phone call.
    Elrood, I really want to thank you for suggesting Tape. It wasn’t even on my radar.

  2. SPOILERS

    I think you answered your own question about Vincent and the excess beer cans. As far as Vincent’s motivation, I think that is very much centered around Amy.
    I don’t think he has ever gotten over her dumping him, even putting aside the fact that she then slept with Jon (in some manner). While it may seem Vincent was doing all this for great justice to expose the crimes of Jon, I think it was very much an enlightened self interest situation. I don’t think he cared about Jon so much as he wanted to show Amy “Hey look, I’m the good guy you never should have dumped. As soon as I’m gone, other guys are raping you! You need me!” That is clearly totally insane logic, but Vince believes it. I think that is why he is so put off and surprised when Amy isn’t instantly thanking him when she realizes what is going on.

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