In the aftermath of the 2016 election, a group of well-intentioned musicians released a music video called “Tyrants Always Fall.” I won’t link it, since it does not have many views and they should be spared the embarrassment. The video is earnest to a fault, with lyrics that are meant as a rallying cry for Resistance Moms or anyone who still cherishes their pussy hat. The song clearly means a lot to them, although it does not have much meaning for anyone else.
I thought of that video when I watched Tape, a new thriller that is (more or less) what would happen if these musicians tried to make a film about #MeToo. Leaving aside the sloppy filmmaking, the film’s premise is misguided to its rotten core. Bad faith detractors could use this film to undermine a movement that deserves better.
Writer and director Deborah Kampmeier based Tape on a real story, and there is certainly a strain of credibility to the sexual predator at its center. He is Lux (Tarek Bishara), a talent scout in New York who preys on impressionable young women looking for a big break. His latest victim is Pearl (Isabelle Furhman), who is not naïve but willing to compromise in ways that are heartbreaking. Tape’s centerpiece is an uncomfortable, lengthy sequence where a “screen test” amounts to little more than Lux using his power – and the promise of a career – to get her into bed. I have no doubt this kind of manipulation continues to do this day.
If Tape had only been about Pearl and Lux, it would have been a disturbing account of a sexual predator. The problem arises with Rosa (Annarosa Mudd), a third character who acts as the film’s conscience. When the film starts, she mutilates herself in a bizarre ritual, almost like she wants to justify (to herself, anyway) what happens next. She attends the same audition as Pearl and the other young women, albeit with an ulterior motive: using a variety of hidden cameras, she hopes to capture what they go through. Yes, you read that right: Rosa is spying on these women without their consent. Oh, and that long scene between Pearl and Lux? Rosa plants hidden cameras in the warehouse where it happens, mostly she can watch it unfold and get all teary-eyed.
Kampmeier clearly believes Rosa is doing the right thing, and the film goes out of its way to show her intentions are good. The trouble is that she robs Pearl of any agency, unintentionally adding a more insidious layer to her victimhood. Both Lux and Rosa rationalize predatory behavior, and this film actually believes one of them. In formal terms, the “viewer watching hidden camera footage” effect is twofold: it creates a quasi-documentary quality to the proceedings, and smooths away the rough edges. Many shots shift in and out of focus, to the point of distraction. The actors have some interesting dialogue, particularly Furhman where she speaks to herself in front of a mirror, except Kampmeier’s grating style gets in the way.
Part of me hoped that Tape would find comeuppance for Rosa, since her kind of intervention is more destructive than anything else. But in the immediate aftermath of Lux and Pearl having sex, Rosa confronts him with a gun in a restaurant. The scene is awkward and utterly devoid of suspense, so the actors have little sense of how to play it. Rosa is clearly disturbed, and no match for Lux’s ability to talk himself out of the situation. So we are left with the final image, one where Rosa and Pearl hug it out as an act of female solidarity. The image is hollow and demonstrates the filmmaker does not understand her own premise, so Tape sinks below any sense of good taste or empathy. Rosa robs Pearl of her privacy, and Kampmeier has the gall to show Pearl thanking her for it. This film robs its victim of her agency twice, and is too dim to understand its significant harm.
What an abysmal, irresponsible attempt to grapple with a serious issue.
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