Directed by Richard Linklater
Most of Richard Linklater’s films seem grounded in hyperrealism, but because of that it might be easy to overlook the sort of heightened realism of some of his other films, such as SubUrbia and Tape. These are films presented as stories in our own world. They glamorize or at least focus on some of the less glamorous aspects of our lives, things we might overlook, including convenience store loitering and dungy motel rooms. But the stories in these worlds put as much effort towards confining its characters to a particular location as something like Star Wars puts towards aggressively stretching its universe outward.
So a story like Tape isn’t very realistic. The dialogue is at times clunky and too expository, but beyond that, this is a conversation that it’s hard to imagine two or more people having. If anything, once it gets serious, you might expect one of them to back out. But this is a movie, so you suspend your disbelief much as you would if you saw someone soaring through space.
When I first saw SubUrbia, Linklater’s 1996 film which takes place over the course of one night among a group of high school friends now in their twenties, I was frustrated because it’s a story that makes no real sense realistically. Characters act a little wildly and do things that don’t feel believable. It’s melodramatic, in other words. But then I saw the film as a microcosm of the downsides of a certain generation or at least of a certain age in one’s life. When considered in the context of Linklater’s work, SubUrbia feels like the counterpoint to arguments made in his films Slacker and Dazed and Confused.
The story is more symbolic than it is real. It’s about the emotions at play and not the specific people who house those emotions, and I feel much the same way about this film, Tape.
Ethan Hawke, as Vince, is a little over the top. He’s more of an aggregation of emotions and cliches than he is a believable person. He’s more energy than human, and the same goes for Robert Sean Leonard as Jon, though he has a different kind of energy.
The movie opens with Vince bouncing off the walls in his hotel room. He’s crushing cans of Rolling Rock, doing push ups, and pacing this way and that. We may not know it yet, but he’s up to something. He’s like the guy shadow boxing in his corner before a big match. Soon Jon shows up, the control to Vince’s chaos. They are old friends from high school, and Jon is in town for a film festival where his film will be shown. While Vince stays in this seedy motel, Jon has been put up at a much nicer one across town. Their lives have started to deviate in directions that will only become more noticeable over time.
It’s clear from the start that Vince is a wildcard. From an appearance standpoint, he’s stripped down to his boxers and a white tank top that reveals a large tattoo across his upper back. His hair is spiky, like it’s trying to flee his head, and it’s not hard to imagine that he has a drug problem. Jon, on the other hand, is dressed more appropriately, and his hair is combed over in a polite, acceptable adult way. His appearance isn’t noteworthy except for how it contrasts with Vince.
Their conversation covers their different lifestyles as adults, and it becomes clear that Vince wants something from Jon. He offers him a beer which Jon declines, but soon he gets him to share a joint with him. Vince brings up Amy, a girl Jon slept with at the end of high school, and he presses Jon for details about their night together. Vince is reluctant at first, but Vince continues to apply the pressure, and soon Vince confesses that he forced himself on Amy.
Vince then reveals the tape recorder and celebrates getting this confession. He admits it’s the biggest thing he’s ever done in his life. The point of this, though, is not about the confession. It’s not even clear, nor will it become clear, what happened between Jon and Amy ten years earlier. When Jon begins to talk about their encounter, he doesn’t think it special or haunting in any way. It just happened. As Vince continues to push him, though, he starts letting on that the encounter wasn’t so simple, but it might just be that he wants Vince to settle down or that Vince is truly getting to him, affecting his memory of the incident. By the end, Jon seems to think he raped Amy.
And soon Amy shows up, having been invited over earlier by Vince, who we learn, had dated Amy in high school, offering some explanation for his obsession with the night between Jon and Amy. Soon Amy learns what they’ve been talking about, and Jon apologizes for what he thinks doesn’t need to be elaborated on. Except Amy, like Vince, presses him for more information because she claims to have no idea what he’s talking about.
Jon thinks she’s taunting him, but Amy seems genuinely clueless as to why he feels the need to apologize. When he explains what he thinks he did, Amy says he’s wrong, but then she adds that if he really thinks he did that, then would he have sought her out to apologize if they hadn’t coincidentally been back in the same town that night. She calls him on his bullshit, in other words. Would Jon have made the effort to fly across the country to apologize if it was inconvenient? Probably not, as he admits.
So why is he apologizing? Does he really believe he did this? Or does he just want the last word? Or does he just want Vince off his back, and he thinks this is what Vince wants to hear?
After their long conversation, no one comes out looking good. They’re all a little dirty from the intense, deeply probing conversation. Vince is a control freak, and he’s obsessed with the past. Jon is exposed as somewhat of a fraud, and Amy’s ultimate ruthlessness towards the men, while not unprovoked, suggests something did happen that night or that there is something within her making her act this way.
It’s hard to know what to think or who to side with, if anyone. Jon is the closest thing we have to a protagonist. While it’s Vince’s decisions that drive the plot early on, he is too much of a wild card to side with. He’s a little unhinged, and Jon is enough of a blank slate character for us to project ourselves onto. By having Amy challenge him as she does, it actually breaks down our identification with him, at least it did for me.
The movie gives us a character to feel for and identify with. Between him and Vince he’s clearly the normal one, but then Jon does what we might think we would do as he apologizes to Amy. Except she doesn’t accept it, and we start to understand her perspective.
There’s a lot going on here, like in any Linklater film, even though it’s a simple story on the surface. It’s a movie that will make you think, and it doesn’t offer any easy answers. It’s a story about memory, obsession, friendship, time and perception as a fallible tool to understand our life.
What are we left with if our memory and perception of certain events isn’t perfect? Maybe it’s intent. That’s what Jon might believe. Early on, he argues with Vince that, believing he did something bad to Amy, all he can do is not do it again. That answer isn’t good enough for Vince, though his character doesn’t offer us much else that suggests we should agree with his worldview.
I’m getting a little off track and lost in my own words again. The point, I suppose, is that Tape is its own universe just as Star Wars is. Long, ninety minute conversations like this probably don’t unfold that often between people and with such clear, well-constructed intensity. These aren’t people as much as they’re symbols of whatever they might represent, things that elaborate on the film’s theme.
By the end of the film, the characters all feel bruised and vulnerable but still alive enough to claw back. They have their guard up more at the end then at the beginning. Where some characters let the wall down, they pull theirs back up.
Like SubUrbia, this film seems to show a darkness which permeates our lives (though likely with less intensity). It’s the other side of themes Linklater focuses on in so many of his other films, including the Before trilogy and other films about life and change over time. Time, for these characters, has been a burden. Returning to the past is painful, but for so many characters in Linklater’s other films, the past is all about nostalgia.
Tape is about characters who don’t want to return into the past, but are forced to, while some of his other films are about characters who long for the past, even if they don’t know it. In the Before trilogy and in Boyhood, as well as Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!, the characters may note explicitly realize that they wish to return to the past, but it’s clear that Linklater, as the director, romanticizes the past, youth and many of his own memories. There’s this calming presence in his films that life will go on no matter what. All the bad things become less bad over time because they’re swallowed up by the massiveness of life. Everything is less important over time, and it all contributes to this beautiful tapestry that influences how you move around the world. In other words, it’s all okay, except that Tape suggests that it’s not always okay. Some things stick with you.
I should mention the shooting style of this movie. Tape was recorded on a digital recorder of some kind. It’s ugly in a way that becomes beautiful over time. At first glance, the cinematography looks shoddy, like a bad student film. The brights are often overexposed, and the quality pails in comparison to a film like Dazed and Confused. Considering where Linklater was in his career, though, it’s clear this is a choice.
The movie feels very experimental. Simple conversations are filmed with too many angles to count. Instead of returning to the same two shots, showing the two actors, the camera goes everywhere. We might start close up on Vince, then close up on Jon, but when we again see Vince, he’s shot from a low angle. When we see Jon, maybe we see him from further away, and when we see Vince yet again, it’s through a natural frame, that of Jon’s leg as it rests on the bed across from him. It’s like Linklater wanted every shot to be unique. The one type of shot he returns to is when the camera pans quickly between two people in a conversation. He seems to do this three or so times through the film, when things are particularly tense.
There is a lot of energy, then, in the shooting style. The whole story plays out in a small motel room, but the characters move all over. The blocking is precise and easy to overlook, but the characters interact with the space in so many ways.