It’s too easy for characters in a film to get out of an uncomfortable situation. A substantial number of dramas avoid heavy conflict until it’s time for the climax, when gloves have to come off for sake of some sort of conclusion based excitement. It’s to be expected, oftentimes rewarding, in terms of catharsis. Tape is a special experiment in indie filmmaking because it is an entire movie consisting of that scene. Set in one hotel room and featuring only three actors for its entire length, anything developed is an aftereffect of confrontational conversation, two of the trio of characters dying to be anywhere else. The film reminds one of the naturalistic style of John Cassavetes, being photographed with a cheap camcorder and showcasing three unrefined, unflinching performances.
And one can’t imagine it was an easy production, considering the small size of the central hotel room and the way the cinematography is as visceral as cinematic camerawork can be. We are first greeted by Vince (Ethan Hawke), a small-time drug dealer/volunteer firefighter, camped out in a seedy hotel room for his hometown’s annual film festival. He has come back to the city in support of his high school buddy, Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), who, making his directorial debut, has won a screening of what he hopes to be a big success of a feature movie. Tape gets going when Jon knocks on the door, who expects a brief visit but gets something much more in return.
Vince, cunning and nettlesome, is bothered by something that doesn’t involve supporting Jon’s professional aspirations in the slightest. What he’s bothered by, it seems, is some unsettled drama from the last days of high school: Vince is certain that Jon date-raped his first girlfriend, Amy (Uma Thurman), with whom he never slept with himself. Concerned that the event might have been a trauma Amy never got over, he plans to, without Jon’s knowledge, record a confession and hand it over to her, or better, the police.
But because Jon is level-headed and mature in comparison to the squirrelly, cocaine-snorting Vince, we’re slightly doubtful of Vince’s accusations. So things get even more interesting when Amy herself comes to the hotel room, with a recollection completely different than what we might expect.
Tape is only 86 minutes long, takes place in real time, and never changes environment. If it isn’t the very definition of an acting movie, I don’t know what is. It is reminiscent especially of 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, not for its content but for the way it is filmed without a hint of a stylistic singularity, letting the actors, the increasingly tense nature of the screenplay, jerk our senses around in ways that practically redefine the meaning of entertainment. Of course, it is too brief, and too minor when putting the careers of the actors into perspective, to be anything other than a fascinating acting exercise of high merit, but that doesn’t make it any less of a vexing experience. It underlines the power of acting, and makes a good case for the brilliance of these three actors, who pull off roles more difficult than anything most mainstream actors would ever have the chutzpah to deliver. Tape is a sturdy, involving experiment, taking characteristics of amateur filmmaking and making them something concrete and confessional. B