he thinks I have violent tendencies.” As far as Vince (Ethan Hawke) can make out—or as far as he wants to make out—this is the reason that his girlfriend left him. It’s not anything he’s proud of, and not anything he wants to discuss with Johnny (Robert Sean Leonard), his best friend from high school, ten years ago. Yet, Vince does bring it up, when the two get together in Lansing, Michigan, where Johnny has his first film screening in the local film fest, in order to jumpstart a conversation about their shared past, now ten years gone, and more specifically, about a girl they both knew, wanted, and lost, Amy (Uma Thurman).
When you first see Vince, in Richard Linklater’s Tape (adapted from Stephen Belber’s play), he does look like he has some of these tendencies. Alone in a motel room, he indulges in some familiar guy-like rituals, with a couple of strange twists: he drinks a couple of beers, while dumping a similar number down the sink. He tosses the cans about the room. He strips to his boxers and t-shirt. He does a few push-ups. And then he waits for Johnny’s arrival.
At this point, the pieces of Vince’s preparation routine come together—he’s been getting ready to meet Johnny, who both intimidates and enrages him. Johnny’s a pretty boy, a high school winner grown up, with a sharp profile and nice shoes. Vince is an also-ran. Turns out that he’s currently a volunteer fireman back home in Oakland, California, where he also sells dope to his boss, the fire chief. At first Johnny lets this go, apparently as an indication that Vince is the same as he’s ever been, not living up to his “potential.” Yeah yeah, Johnny sighs, Vince’s ex was probably right to leave him: “She thinks I’m a dick,” he admits. Well, Johnny soothes, maybe he’s not totally a dick, but only, occasionally, he “has a tendency to act in a phallic fashion.” Oh no, Vince elaborates, pushing Johnny’s language anxiety: “I have unresolved ‘issues’ that sometimes manifest themselves in violent ways.” Okay, Johnny agrees, smugly, he does “sometimes present a threatening appearance.”
It’s evident in this exchange that Johnny—the independent filmmaker who aspires to do “good” in the world—thinks Vince is a bit of a Neanderthal, unambitious and uncreative. It’s also evident that Vince thinks Johnny’s a prima donna, out of touch with his masculine side. Or maybe not: it turns out that wily Vince has an ulterior motive for their meeting. He wants Johnny to confess that he raped their old classmate, Amy, just after she had just broken up with Vince (the crucial detail eventually slips out that she never slept with Vince when they were going out). Johnny’s immediately uncomfortable, and wants to move on, forget all this and focus on his film premiere. Vince, on the other hand, wants to rehash and judge. At the very least, he wants Johnny’s admission of guilt, of imperfection, of recklessness and cruelty, a recognition that he’s not so different from Vince—or Vince’s self-image—as he pretends to be.
The conversation turns increasingly mean, reduced to actual wrestling when Johnny finds out that Vince has been taping it—even the part where Johnny more or less agrees to Vince’s interpretation of long-ago events. At this point, literally when the boys are on top of each other, Amy (now an assistant DA in Lansing) arrives, called ahead of time by Vince as part of his grand scheme to get the three of them back in the same room. Because it’s one of those airless, grim, moderately priced motel rooms with lumpy twin beds and bad art on the walls, the situation is exceedingly uncomfortable. And because the camera never leaves this room, you’re soon feeling as trapped as the characters.
Vince’s trap has to do with truth: he remains fixed on the idea that he will expose it and name it, that it’s “caught” on the tape. As soon as Amy walks in and sits down, Vince signals toward the tape in his pocket, threatening Johnny to “tell the truth.” The problem is that this truth isn’t so neatly identified or told as Vince assumes, even if he does have the recording, which he presumes is “proof.” Vince, who’s been living with his anger, and his desire for an answer to justify that anger, for ten years, is hardly able to contain himself when the breakdown nears. At the same time, Amy is visibly ill at ease, as the two guys hover over her, peering at one another every time she moves slightly in her chair. Johnny stands near the door, perhaps imagining that he can walk out.
It appears that a lot is riding on what happened that night, ten years ago. Or more accurately, it appears that Vince and Johnny believe they have a lot riding on it, and that Amy inevitably shares their concern. Amy, however, reads it differently. She sees the investment they have in her corroboration of their story, and refuses to give it. Instead, she challenges the boys’ story, their right to tell her story, and their increasingly idiotic and self-involved posturing over moral rights and responsibilities. While it’s not entirely clear why she does this—whether she has a different story in her head, whether she needs to be stronger than them, or whether, as she puts it, “nothing happened that night”—she’s able to wield words in a way that’s quite beyond even Johnny’s smarmy dexterity. She’s a lawyer, so she knows something about moral blustering.
But this boys-versus-girl structure makes Tape look simpler than it is. Linklater is well-known for making pictures where characters talk a lot, and this one’s claustrophobic setting and small cast provide a tighter narrative and formal focus than usual—no escape for you by way of cool digital animation (Waking Life) or a beautifully distracting tracking camera (Slacker, Before Sunrise). Moreover, it’s possible to become annoyed at a movie that obscures a rape’s truth or falsity, makes it seem less important than its dissection by the characters. But if you wrestle with that concept a bit, you might see that the movie is not about Amy’s body and experience, but about two men’s belief that they have access to, control over, and a consequential stake in that body and experience. In other words, it’s about their violent tendencies, however these might be a function of their gender, or not.
Indeed, for viewers—who obviously cannot know what happened ten years ago to fictional characters—the rape, as story, as fact or fabrication, is progressively less crucial than the ways that the characters are understanding themselves now, at this moment, in this motel room, in front of this set of cameras. For as much as the characters are living fictional lives, they are doing so at this moment in front of Linklater’s probing, provocative cameras, for viewers’ contemplation and agitation.
Tape‘s staginess is punctuated by painfully self-conscious dialogue and in-between silences, which underline the vagaries of truth and performance. In the end, Tape is not so concerned with what happened that night, who’s guilty or not, or even who owes whom an apology, if not some kind of legal redress. Rather, what it gets you thinking about, while you watch it and for some time afterwards, is whether anyone can ever know what has “happened,” and more disturbingly, how the tendency to want such knowledge can be violent.