Berlinale Review: ‘DISCREET’ Another Step Forward for Auteur Travis Mathews

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“DISCREET” Berlinale Poster

2017 Berlin International Film Festival: “DISCREET” follows the metaphysical journey of an emotionally compromised man named Alex (Jonny Mars). It is Travis Mathews‘ feature follow-up to the critically acclaimed and uncompromising film, “Interior. Leather Bar.” The tone is immediately established through creepy visuals and odd, whispery and snapping sound effects. The film begins with a young woman named Mandy, who has a famous self-help guru channel on YouTube called “Gentle Rhythms,” based out of Portland, Oregon. Her narration is juxtaposed with the introduction to the film’s central character, Alex, who is apparently a drifter and a voyeur. Her narration and urging of her viewers to ask their subconscious minds to find new discoveries, and to address them on a cellular level, prompts Alex on a nonlinear journey of self-realization.

Alex is an odd character who films cars in traffic on freeways, as he meanders aimlessly through rural Texas. He feels that Mandy is speaking singularly to him; he relates to her message of peace and self-discovery on a spiritual level. Their connection is vital to the film’s narrative. The audience does not hear a peep out of Alex in the first five minutes, but Mars establishes a foreboding and melancholy presence with his mannerisms. He has a talent of portraying so many emotions with little or no dialogue. Mars is in almost every frame, and he is a presence that demands being seen. Single-shot takes in the car with him driving are where the film is at its best. The fear, struggle and sadness portrayed leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.

As we see Alex visit his mother, a recovering addict, she explains that she got entangled with an organization when she became friends with one of her rehab friends. She mentions a man, who she once thought dead, is still alive, much to the horror of Alex. We are unsure of Alex’s connection to this man. Now estranged, he cannot bring himself to forgive his mother. Yet, there is something deeper-rooted in his anguishing feelings.

Throughout the film, the audience sees a dead body floating in the river. It is unclear as to whether Mandy, Alex or an unseen character committed the act of killing and disposing of the body. Furthermore, we are not sure if this act has been committed, or if it is what the film is building to. This visual, a recurring motif in the film, though it provides an oddly beautiful image, builds suspense in a disquieting manner.

There is a paradoxical theme of prejudice and an internal battle in the main character. He listens to a conservative radio channel hosted by a Rush Limbaugh-esque DJ, a racist, sexist and id-driven xenophobe, often while he’s driving, as he spends most of his time on the road. Throughout the film, Alex partakes in sexual activities with an older man, yet he seems somewhat conflicted, alarmed as he is engaging in these acts. Their last encounter results in full intercourse. This is difficult for viewers to watch, because of the unsettling images of taxidermy animals in the man’s house while we hear the moans in the background. Mathews further shows his ability to create contrast in the intertwining of images and sounds. The man kicks Alex out, clearly filled with the same shame as Alex. Even in today’s society, homosexuality is still not widely accepted, especially in Texas, forcing discreetness in Alex’s actions over the course of the film.

The Making of a Reluctant Predator

When Alex picks up an underage young man who is looking for a ride home, the viewer is faced with the fear of pedophilia, which lingers in each frame. Though nothing happens, he continues this pattern of stalking young men. Alex is struggling with his homosexuality. He puts out an ad, referencing the film’s title, for discreet orgies with older men. When these men arrive in his hotel room he has set up, he blindfolds them, and, as they partake in foreplay, he steals their money. This is one of his ways of getting by financially.

As he stalks a property he claims is his grandfather’s, he confronts the old man, who is senile, and stays at his property throughout the film. There is a palpable feeling of animosity from Alex towards this man. It becomes apparent that this is the man Alex’s mother mentioned earlier. Yet why is he taking care of a man he resents? The audience eventually pieces together that his grandfather may have molested him as a child, visuals of which he cannot remove from his mind.

So, he continues to listen fervently to Mandy on his quest to achieve “vibrational peace,” as Mandy words it. It is how he sleeps, how the doors of his memories remain at bay, waiting to be unhinged. The viewer eventually sees Alex and Mandy talking on the phone, as Alex explains that Mandy’s videos opened something up inside of him. He explains he wants to show her what it is in Portland. Is this “thing” that Mandy opened inside of Alex pedophilia? Is Alex’s fascination with Mandy reciprocated?

The Suppression of the Predator’s Instincts

Eventually, he breaks into one of the underaged boys’ homes, sniffing his dirty clothes and watching videos of him on his computer, carrying a baseball bat. It is implicit that, though Alex’s pedophilia tendencies may not be fully realized, he craves childlike innocence, while at the same time battling his conflicted desires to be dominated by older men, calling the older man from the peep show room, begging for an encounter, tortured by his childhood of molestation. This is how he suppresses his pedophilia.

Alex eventually pays the teenager whose house he broke into, now appearing to have reluctantly complied to John, and films their interaction at a picnic table to see how it plays out. Nothing happens, but Alex taunts John that the teenager was attractive, trying to get answers out of him. He then calls Mandy to tell him he has the “video,” which, at this point, is still a mystery to the viewer.

As Alex stays at John’s place, he notices something off about Lyle, John’s caretaker. On the property, there is a shed, contents of which Alex is heavily drawn to. This becomes something far more sinister when he sees a toddler girl laying in his backseat as Lyle leaves said shed. So, Alex, having a conscience, realizes Lyle might be a sex trafficker. After seeing Lyle go to the shed a second time, he follows him, taking pictures for any proof of what he suspects.

Finally, we see the contents of the shed, as Alex takes pictures. The contents are a bed, a rope, videotapes, toilet paper, mason jars of urine and an old polaroid camera. Although it only shows flashes of him as a child lying on the bed, it is more powerful what we do not see. The crying voice of a young John, having been trapped in this shed, echoes in the background; what is implied is far more powerful and adds an element of horror that is so often overlooked for shock value and torture porn movies. Less is more, and Mathews understands that immensely. Alex finds that these mason jars are filled with his own urine from when he was locked in this shed.

The Predator Surfaces From Beneath

Still battling his inner conflicts, he pays the young boy from before to have dinner at John’s house. Observing him, he asks Zack to feed John his steak. At last, we see Alex snap, forcing John’s hand on Zack’s face, desperate for John to remember what he did to him. Zack, now in the middle of it, cries for help, but Alex continues to demand answers. Alas, it is revealed that John used to live upstairs from Alex, and indeed abused him as a child.

While driving Zack home, Alex explains to him that the person that surfaced at the dinner table was not him; something took over him. “Our bodies notice more than our minds,” Mandy narrates, highlighting Alex’s impulses.

In the film’s third act, Alex repairs the bond with his mother. This may seem symbolic of him finally being able to let the past go, but it still lingers. It is revealed that Alex’s fixation with Mandy is not mutual, and that she finally tells him he is harassing her, although he may not think he is. She forbids him from coming to Portland, threatening to involve the law. Alex’s grasp on reality has loosened as a result of his tortured past; he has a distorted moral compass, void of boundaries and self-respect.

Mandy’s rejection of him prompts him to finally act out his pedophilia tendencies. He shows up at Zack’s house, who is clearly rattled by their previous interactions. Zack’s life will be affected forever as a result of Alex’s meddling in it. Alex has perpetuated the cyclical effect of repeated sins of the past, and he has become what made him this way.

It is finally revealed that the body floating in the river is John’s. In an act of symbolically attempting to destroy his past, Alex takes his baseball bat to the shed, destroying it. He cannot forget his past, and his memories float with him forever, along with the image of John’s body floating in the river. As he releases the body into the stream, Mandy can be heard exhaling, and humming peacefully, providing an effective, stark contrast to the events that just unfolded.

The Profundity of Alex’s Humanity

What is most unsettling about “DISCREET,” is that Alex has a conscience, even a desire to be morally sound. Though it may be difficult for some viewers to comprehend that a pedophile can feel remorse, among other similar emotions, it is refreshing to display the human traits in his character, rather than displaying a one-dimensional monster seen as pure evil. However, obviously, having feelings of remorse and regret do not excuse Alex’s actions.

Travis Mathews does a fantastic job of meshing visuals and sounds together in a transient matter. This illusory effect adds to the aforementioned meditative vibe of the film. Mandy’s soothing narration blends seamlessly with the contrast of Alex’s aggravated sighs, groans, breaths and the persistent background noise of river running.

There is a theme of letting go of the past throughout “DISCREET,” as Alex struggles to find his way and control his demons. Rhythms throughout the film in the form of sounds of traffic, John’s uncontrollable shaking of his hand and the consistent unanswered ringing of his house phone, the crackling sounds of grilling bacon that Mandy provides in her videos, and that recurring sound of the flowing river.

Alex’s connection to Mandy also brings to light an important societal observation: in an increasingly technologically isolating world, many find it hard to make human connections and relationships without it being meddled by a screen or social cues being misconstrued as a result of texting, emailing and social media. Other important social issues explored are the universal themes of drug abuse and the effects on others, southern society’s rejection, and even scolding of homosexuality and minorities, the pressing and immediate widespread epidemic of sex trafficking, and the cyclical effect of physical and emotional abuse.

“DISCREET” is produced and distributed by Revelator, Terminal 75 and M-Appeal. The film had its Berlinale debut on Feb. 11, and is awaiting a release date.

GRADE: (★★)