Tape is a hidden gem, a masterwork in the power of dialogue and the shifting dynamics of tense conversation. The wordplay, which is the entirety of the picture, works like a scale as one character takes the control over another, and the weight then shifts back and forth throughout. Shot in one location, a dingy motel room, Tape is a claustrophobic and wonderfully tense battle of wits between old high school friends who carry with them different views of the past. Richard Linklater is one of the more experimental filmmakers around, bouncing from genre to genre and scenario to scenario, and with Tape he takes an existing play and fills it with three compelling performances. Who is right in this situation? Sometimes you think you have a grip on who is right and wrong. But just when you have a handle on the events, they shift again.
We first meet Vince, played by Ethan Hawke. Vince is holed up in the narrow, dank motel room with a pair of beds and an eerily blue-lit bathroom. Vince, bouncing around the room in a tank top and boxers, shotguns beers, snorts some coke, and does some pushups. He is clearly preparing for something, but we don't know what. We don't really know what to make of Vince until there is a knock at the door. It is Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), a high school friend who is in town to promote his first film at a local festival. Once Jon arrives, we get a sense of the relationship between the two and begin to form opinions. Jon is genuinely curious as to why Vince contacted him, why he is in town (is it for the film?), and a sense of suspicion grows.
The two engage in rapid conversation. Jon speaks measured and with calm intelligence, Vince spurts out aggressive talk and hops around the room seemingly about to explode. The two old friends talk about Vince's ex-girlfriend, Jon's film career, and what exactly is going on here. It is clear Vince has a motive for bringing Jon in but he doesn't directly explain said motive. Instead, he leads conversations into the past, and begins grilling Jon about high school. They share a joint, and this leads the dialogue towards a certain name: Amy. Pay close attention to the subtle shift in power between Vince and Jon once Amy is mentioned. Beforehand, Jon appears to have control of the situation while Vince seems erratic and unstable. But once Amy is mentioned, a shift in the room dynamic happens deftly, in small facial expressions and sighs.
Vince dated Amy in high school, but they broke up and late in their senior year she dated and slept with Jon. But Vince questions the nature of the sex. Was it consensual? Was it too rough? Vince begins cross-examining Jon's recount of the sex, accusing him of rape. The conversation elevates and the tension swells until Vince forces a confession out of Jon. He pulls a tape out of his bag and revels in the fact he has some blackmail. His plan comes to fruition when there is another knock at the door, and Amy walks in. Amy, played by Uma Thurman, is the key to the story. Her memories and her attitude towards the two men will decide the fate of the story. In a lesser film, Amy would develop purely as a villain, but in this film she flips the script just about the time we have the thing figured out. It is a genius move by writer Stephen Belber to add yet another layer that these characters must work to penetrate.
There is nowhere for the characters to go in Tape, they are forced to stay in this room and confront the past. Each have their own opinions of the events and each one of these opinions contradicts the other. This film relies on powerful acting, and all three players dominate their roles. The most compelling is Hawke, a teeming bottle of energy and aggression. And despite the fact that the film never leaves a single set, has only three actors, and relies exclusively on dialogue, it never feels stagnant. Because there is so much said and unsaid, so many sifting dynamics in the tense words, and so many angles to take.