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Tape (Richard Linklater) 2001 / Heist (David Mamet) 2001

Great dialogue in films seems to pop its head up less and less these days. Most new films that are acclaimed for their dialogue contain more Tarrantino-esque speechifying or drolly sarcastic witticisms than actual conversation. Richard Linklater, whose Before Sunrise seemed almost revolutionary simply because it allowed its characters to converse with each other, is one of the few directors that really attempts to celebrate discourse in film. He didn’t write Tape, which is based on a stage play by Stephen Belber, but it seems to have his touch anyway. There is an absolute respect for the film’s characters present, despite the nastiness of the material, but Linklater also respects them enough to point out the inconsistencies in their logic. The film is set in a single hotel room and only has three characters, but it never flags for a moment of its running time (which is just under 90 minutes).

The dialogue is not really stylized, yet there’s a certain layering of meaning in nearly everything that is said. As the plot unfolds, and motivations are revealed, it becomes apparent that each of the characters is really being placed in the role of an actor. The words that they choose seem to be preprogrammed to elicit a specific reaction from the person that they are speaking to. Words function as weaponry, redemption, seductions, definers of self, and burdens to the conscience here.  I don’t want to reveal the plot, because this is probably a film best seen cold, but I will say that much of the film’s meaning is wrapped up in how the characters change the word that they use to describe a particular event. The shift in word selection becomes a power struggle as they ask each other to redefine their perception of that event. The film suggests words are somewhat inadequate because they force us to define the things that we describe with them. Since different people can have the varying perceptions of the same event, giving that event a name becomes a lie in itself. It’s interesting that in the film, the character who was not involved in that incident is the one that has the most concrete definition of it. As the Uncertainty Principle quoted in the Coen’s The Man Who Wasn’t There stated, the more you look at something, the less you know about it.

David Mamet’s Heist is a slightly less ambitious film, though it still has a lot to say. Mamet is a notorious dialogue stylist, and after a reprieve from his typical staccato speaking rhythms and macho posturing in last year’s State and Main and the previous’ The Winslow Boy, he returns with Heist. The film’s title seems to suggest that the Heist is more important than the MacGuffin that it turns out to be. Significantly the big heist itself, it is filmed Rififi-style with an absence of dialogue, but it only lasts a few minutes. Early on,. Rebecca Pidgeon takes off a wig, showing us that her typical dark hair was actually faked, and the game is set. Much of the film is filled with the double-crosses that were so prevalent in Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner or House of Games, and I would argue that there are too many of them. They aren’t really cleverly built up to, but instead show how they were pulled off only after they have been done.

Like I said though, the heist itself doesn’t seem to be the focus. One of the characters remarks that it’s not difficult to steal something, but it’s very difficult to get away with it. It’s not surprising that it’s the getaway takes up the majority of the film. What is the most interesting aspect of the film, though, is its focus on character. Gene Hackman plays Joe Moore, a tough old crook who finds his days numbered after he’s been caught on a surveillance camera. He’s an absolute pro, and his crew works with a frightening amount of professionalism. They seem to have all angles figured out, and their primary tool seems to be their verbiage. When they are put in a tight spot, they usually turn aggressive; yelling at the police officer that has the tenacity to ask them what they’re doing. They’re forced to be actors as they attempt to get an “in” on their prospective targets, and that aspect of their job seems the most interesting to Mamet. They use their cool, or pretend to lose their cool in order to manipulate a situation throughout the film. Even off the job, their squabbles feel more like physical attacks. In the most stunning scene, Joe threatens a dissenter with a lead pipe while bellowing at him, “You want to play the dozens? The hospital called… there was a mistake made… you were dead at childbirth! Now top that!?” In that moment, the motive of the movie crystallizes into a scary reality. Words are Joe’s weapons, and he resents anyone else trying to outtalk him. The cast is strong, and Hackman’s performance is yet another great one from him this year.

Both films are solid works, and both prove writing great movie dialogue is not yet a dead art. Both are exemplary in their use of conversation. They both examine not only what the characters say, but also the ulterior motives that make them say precisely what they choose to say. The tone and word choices in each film are as important as the thought behind the statement, and both demonstrate the inherent power that what people say has. Credit must be given to the casts of both films, for managing to convey effectively the complexities of their roles, and to the directors who have both taken modestly plotted films and given them a great deal of additional intricacy.

Tape ****

Heist ***1/2

Jeremy Heilman 11-20-01