Starring: Jonny Mars, Atsuko Okatsuka, Joy Cunningham, Jordan Elsass, Bob Swafter
Director: Travis Matthews
Monday 30th July sees the release of Discreet, the new movie by Travis Matthews, director of Interior, Leather Bar. An atmospheric slow-burning thriller that blends the past and present, fantasy and reality, it centres around an unreliable protagonist, whose perception and account of his half-psychotic actions are somewhat jumbled.
Alex (Mars) is a drifter who has spent years trying to control his inner demons. His ailing mother (Cunningham) reveals to him a secret from his past; that the man who abused him as a child, John (Swafter), is still alive. Plotting to exact his revenge, he tracks down John but finds an old man with dementia, wholly reliant on the care of others. Claiming to be his grandson, he moves in with him, performing a peculiar balance between hatred and love, bringing in a young boy (Elsass) to be his surrogate young self in this uncomfortable re-enactment of Alex’s past pain.
Alex is a difficult character to like. On the one hand he is a victim; clearly having been subjected to considerable abuse by a man decades his senior. On the other, he has grown up a psycho-sexual extremist, who makes no connection with the men he has sex with, living out bondage and BDSM fantasies with deadpan normalcy, as though this for him is just as normal as doing his laundry. His sexual proclivity is clearly a product of his abused past, but the way the camera catches them in long static shots that feel voyeuristically documentarian leaves them feeling hard and impossible to relate to. And as he makes that transition from abused to abuser, we lose whatever empathy we had left for him.
Throughout, there are vignettes taken from a YouTuber Alex is obsessed with; Mandy, a lifestyle coach whose New Age self-help videos revolve around satisfying the “rhythms and vibrations” of life. Alex makes contact with Mandy (Okatsuka) and begins a delusion that he has found in this online presence a person who wholly understands him. A YouTuber himself – albeit the (thrilling) documenter of moving traffic – this is just another symptom of his inability to maintain any real human relationships in the flesh. He is solitary; lost in his own feelings, with nothing else mattering but the way he perceives the world.
Unfortunately, the film attempts to mirror Alex’s filmmaking style; observational and fly-on-the-wall, arduously plodding through long dialogue-free sequences that study Alex’s behaviour for what feels like greatly excessive periods. For a character we don’t like, we are forced to watch him go about his daily tasks in as much detail as his increasingly erratic anomalies. And all the while, the film is accompanied by a wildly over-exaggerated score that initially does much to raise the tension, but eventually starts to feel like the director is trying desperately to over-compensate for the lack of on-screen action.
It’s hard to like Discreet, with its long-winded earnestness and grave protagonist. While its story does suggest an interesting narrative, its execution leaves it falling flat on its face, about as interesting as the tedious videos Alex is shooting.