'Discreet': Film Review

Discreet Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlinale
A stark portrait of trauma.

Travis Mathews' psychodrama observes a young man living in the shadow of sexual abuse.

A drifter with unclear intentions haunts Central Texas in Discreet, Travis Mathews' foreboding look at alienation and the long shadow of sexual abuse. An oblique psychological portrait set in an uncomfortable spot where ASMR videos meet right-wing talk radio and anonymous hookups substitute for human companionship, the picture is mildly unsettling even if its ingredients don't add up to as much as they promise to. Following up the director's thorny 2013 James Franco collaboration, Interior. Leather Bar., it is likely to bolster his credibility with followers of queer cinema's more experimental offerings.

Alex (Jonny Mars) lives mostly out of the kind of van parents warn their kids about, occasionally renting a hotel room for Craigslist encounters that seem to double as opportunities for petty theft. (In the one we observe, he recruits three strangers, blindfolds each and has them strip, then watches the men caress each other as he quietly goes through their wallets.)

Alex has come to rely on a series of web videos, produced by Atsuko Okatsuka's Mandy, in which the host whispers to her audience and offers "vibrational peace" by focusing on the sizzle of bacon or the plink-plink-plink of a finger dragged across a plastic comb. With an old video camera, Alex is trying to make his own films that will impress Mandy: Setting himself up along the frontage of busy highways to capture the sounds of traffic, he calls to mind the audio recordist in Upstream Color.

That isn't the only echo of Shane Carruth in Discreet, which uses a densely layered sound design to evoke its protagonist's mental unrest. Alex has recently learned that someone from his past has moved to the area, and while the specifics of their shared history are withheld for a while, it's pretty clear that the now-disabled old man, John (Bob Swaffar), who is mute and has a persistent tremor, abused Alex as a boy. Alex finds the rural shack where he's living and moves in, needling the helpless John. He brings a teenage boy over for dinner, and seems to hope he'll catch John trying to do something to him; but much is left unsaid on this topic, even after things culminate in implied violence.

Easier to grasp is Alex's growing interest in Mandy — he delusionally thinks he's going to drive cross-country to collaborate with her on new videos — and the way his sex life has been colored by trauma. In addition to his Craigslist encounters, he sometimes meets a married, closeted older man (Joao Federici) for silent trysts in a porn shop, and his gestures of submission do not come across as harmless role-playing.

Disheveled and anxious-eyed, Mars fills this damaged role well, giving Alex enough drive to be engaging but communicating little beyond that. Here, the essence of sexual trauma is its specificity. Alex couldn't tell you what John did to him if he wanted to. And Mathews doesn't pretend that showing us what happened will make us understand.

Production company: Metal Mickey
Cast: Jonny Mars, Atsuko Okatsuka, Joy Cunningham, Jordan Elsass, Joao Federici, Ed Hattaway, Bill Johnson, Bob Swaffar
Director-screenwriter: Travis Mathews
Producers: Don Swaynos, Joao Federici, Jonny Mars, Travis Mathews, Chris Ohlson, PJ Raval
Executive producers: Fred Daniel, Sarah Rippy, Hornet
Director of photography: Drew Xanthopoulos
Production designer: Dustin Shroff
Costume designer: Amanda Ramirez
Editors: Travis Mathews, Don Swaynos
Composer: Mark Deglia
Casting director: Malina Panovich

80 minutes