Sex, lies and audiotape

Linklater narrows his focus in taut Tape

Richard Linklater's new film Tape is a play in all major respects but the literal one. Stephen Belber's script is based on his stage play of the same name; the cast has only three actors; and the action takes place in real time in a single room. The film retains the rhythms of live theater, circling its themes with recurring lines of dialogue, letting tensions build, ratcheting them down and bringing them up again.

With no lavish locations and virtually no music, Tape rises or falls based solely on the work of its trio of players, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman, who are not consistently strong actors. But they're all up to Tape's challenge, making Belber's thoughtful, confrontational play into a surprisingly charged experience.

Room 19 of a Michigan Motor Lodge is like every cheap motel dwelling you've ever seen, and Tape offers no respite from its drab decor, keeping the curtains drawn and barely even setting foot in the bathroom. But it's where two best friends from high school reunite, a decade after graduation. Jon (Leonard) has become an independent filmmaker and is screening his first film at the Lansing Film Festival. Vince (Hawke) lives in Oakland as a volunteer fireman and small-time drug dealer.

At first they happily get caught up with each other, focusing on why Vince's girlfriend left him. Apparently he has violent tendencies, and as he bounces around in his boxers and shotguns cans of Rolling Rock, the revelation doesn't surprise us. But as the conversation continues, Vince begins asking about events from their senior year, when Jon briefly went out with Amy, Vince's first girlfriend. Gradually revealing that he has an agenda, Vince takes the role of interrogator, and their dialogue begins to repeat itself, as when Jon says, "We slept together." "How?" "What do you mean, 'how?'" and again.

We slowly reassess our first impression of Jon as a nice, responsible guy when he acknowledges that on a fateful night with Amy, "Something got a little out of hand," and that he used "verbal coercion" on her. Vince finally tape records Jon making a specific admission, which he wants to share with Amy herself — who's soon to arrive at Room 19.

Tape proves a 180-degree turn for Linklater, who usually directs motion pictures that are constantly on the move, trailing people down streets and into the rooms of Austin or Vienna or, in the animated Waking Life, slumberland itself.

Cinematographer Maryse Alberti fully exploits the mobility and intimacy afforded by digital cameras, making the audience feel like an unnoticed person in the room with the characters. Occasionally the camerawork gets a little restless, peeking between actors' legs or the crooks of their arms for unintentional comedy. At two key moments, the camera shuttles back and forth between characters, like someone watching a tennis match. It's an effect that occasionally turns up in films that want to feel "edgy," and never looks good no matter where it's used.

Amy (Thurman), an assistant district attorney, turns up at the room two-thirds into the film and demonstrates how a woman's point of view changes the self-perception of men. Thurman nicely conveys both the pleasure and awkwardness of seeing long-lost friends, but then she makes Amy increasingly wary, breaking eye contact and hesitating, as if the character's covering something up.

In most of his films, Hawke makes the gestures of a serious actor, but in Tape he does some actual acting, making Vince's aura of menace seem like a phony front for immaturity and hurt feelings. Leonard effectively makes Jon seem like he's holding something in reserve, so we never know how to gauge his sincerity. Now and then both actors become loud and demonstrative, closer to stage acting than real-world behaviors.

Tape counts as a vast improvement on Oleanna, David Mamet's adaptation of his own play with comparable subject matter and far more self-importance. Each work explores the slipperiness of an event between two people and the difficulty of ascertaining what happened when witnesses contradict or misinterpret each other. Risking claustrophobia to play perceptions against reality and truth against consequences, Tape has far more thematic heft than you'd expect from two guys, a girl and a Motor Palace.??