Revenge and Masculine Fragility
Travis Mathews’s new film, “Discreet” is the story of an older man who returns home after years in hiding and struggling to control his demons. He learns that his childhood abuser, who was at the center of his pain, is still alive. Our man begins to plot his revenge while at the same time dealing with the concept of masculine fragility in modern-day America. The film looks at the complex potential of YouTube in this story of a childhood abuse victim whose fixation with a well-meaning video blogger confuses his connection to the real world.
This is a meditation on many contemporary social ills and presents a vividly worldview. Mathews gives us the first queer film that addresses the subject of alt-right influence on outsider identity in Middle America. There are even Trump-Pence campaign signs that date the proceedings precisely.
Gay drifter Alex (Jonny Mars) hears voices of and sees two very different cultural spheres that influence him equally and they cause disorientation and have a deleterious effect. In one ear is the aggressive Conservative pro-Trump lobby that comes with far right talk radio and that encourages his most violent, reactionary attempts at self-assertion. On the other ear is the peaceable New Age self-help counsel of minor YouTube sensation Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka) whose videos suggest and advocate finding solace in the routines and rhythms of the everyday. Alex is eager to please Mandy and meets her at her home in Portland where he gets into making his own video art. However, it soon becomes very that Alex is mentally unbalanced and has a very different idea of what is therapeutic. Alex then returns his hometown in Texas to confront the trauma of his youth and unexpectedly comes into contact with his childhood abuser and finds that who he had once considered to be a monster is now disabled. Alex assumes the role of caretaker, even though the possibility of retribution remains with him. Mars’ dour performance holds viewers away from him. We see how he feels about his sexuality by his visits to porn shops on the edge of town and Craigslist motel meets arranged on Craigslist. Yet Alex remains an enigma. The more he goes off the deep end, the more he drifts.
Mandy is never quite a full embodiment of the millennial liberal movement that both encourages and cruelly spurns the protagonist’s difference. “Discreet” reflects the inchoate identity it seeks to portray and it begins to agitate its audience.
There can be a paradoxically public intimacy to YouTube culture that is paradoxically artificial and there is little sense of personal connection. YouYube seems to prey on loneliness among those watching. We become aware of racism, internalized homophobia and the general fear of being seen and hiding behind a computer screen does not prove that someone is discreet or not.
It all begins ambiguously with the sound of frying bacon, an image of an Asian woman holding the sides of her head and, eventually, a body being wrapped in garbage bags. From this point, the plot gradually unfolds slowly and I found it to be unforgettable even when the film is over.
During the course of the film, Alex spends time with John, an older, despondent man with a nervous twitch and arranges discreet hookups in local sex spots. Eventually he connects with Zack, a teenage employee at the local donut shop. Here the film begins a series of twists and turns as it reflects Alex’s dark psyche. We are all aware of urgency that surrounds us with the new presidential administration. We want to act on this but we are not sure how.
“Discreet” is a minimalist thriller that reflects our time without being didactic and preachy. Our government is actively trying to confuse the populace about what’s real, and they’re doing it by inciting a death and destruction narrative. We are being hit with a degree of brute force that’s measured in relation to how scared they are. Straight white men see how demographics and culture are shifting away from their self-interest, and they probably would prefer to see the world go down in flames—as a show of masculinity rather than to concede, compromise. We see that there’s a lot of trouble to be had with most things “discreet.” Discretion is central to Alex’s struggle and he responds to the isolated world that he struggles to overcome. He tries to take down the community of people with discreet actions that rely on each other to stay safe.