"Tape" may take place entirely in a small motel room, but it packs an emotional wallop the size of an entire city. Working from Stephen Belber's one-act play, Richard Linklater proves the adage that "less is more" by getting uncomfortably close to the three people who occupy the film. They are not terribly likable, but because Belber and Linklater get so intimate with them, the outcome of this encounter has a gripping urgency.
It also helps that the cast members leap into their roles with convincing abandon. Ethan Hawke ("Training Day") bravely eliminates any feeling of empathy for his role of Vince early on. When he first appears, Vince is downing enough Rolling Rock bottles to empty the company's entire distillery. Linklater's camera shoots his boozing from overhead making the sight even more pathetic.
Vince may be loaded, but he's gone to the Lansing, Mich., motel room with a clear mission. His high school chum John (Robert Sean Leonard) has come to Lansing to promote his first film-directing project for a local festival. In the years that have passed, John has cut down on his chemical recreation (which alienates Vince) and has developed the attitude that when he matures as an "artist" he will be able to change the world. While Vince is a dope peddler who describes himself as a "volunteer fireman," he knows something about his former friend that will bust John's pretensions of respectability. The two once longed for Amy (Uma Thurman): Vince dated her, and she and John had sex. Vince, however, thinks it was rape.
Despite imbibing enough marijuana and cocaine to intoxicate a whale, Vince tricks John into describing on tape his encounter with Amy 10 years before, and even invites her to the room. She's now an assistant district attorney, making John's situation even more precarious.
Often, when a play is put on the screen, activity that would seem involving onstage becomes static and even dull. When characters stay put in a narrow environment on the screen for several minutes at a time and talk endlessly, the results seem artificial and claustrophobic. Linklater manages to use the latter factor to his advantage. The walls appear delicate, and as Hawke prances around like a caged animal, it seems as if he's going to tear or knock the place down.
Linklater and cinematographer Maryse Alberti operated their own digital hand-held cameras, giving the movie a crucial spontaneity. Without being distracting, the cameras often cover the actors as if they were in a news story. Much of this is certainly deliberate (the camera does pan to the right spots even if it's racing to catch up with the subject), but there's a constant sense of volatility that makes the motel room seem more like a powder keg. While executed quickly (in a mere six days) and cheaply, Alberti manages to avoid the grainy look that comes with digitally shot movies.
All of these technical flourishes would be for naught if the cast wasn't properly committed. Hawke approaches Vince with a bravado that has been missing from some of his past performances, and his willingness to be so repellent becomes weirdly engrossing. Leonard's glib manner is on-target, and it's fascinating to watch his composure crumble as Vince and Amy start to work on him. Thurman isn't in the film as much as the other two, but she lets her presence be felt, making Amy come off as slyer than she initially appears.
Hawke and Thurman are married in real life, and Leonard and Hawke have known each other since they both starred in "Dead Poets Society." Consequently, they have an onscreen familiarity that seems to make their characters willing to hang out with each other despite the ugliness of the situation.
Linklater's previous movies like "Dazed and Confused" and the recent "Waking Life" often have a loose, laid-back feel that makes "Tape" seem all the more surprising. There's a darkness and a tension that haven't been there before, but Linklater appears just as assured with these new emotions.