Movie Review - Discreet (2018)

Travis Mathews is probably best known for co-directing Interior. Leather Bar. (2013), a film about actor James Franco working on a project of recreating the lost footage from William Friedkin's Cruising (1980). Friedkin's film was an adaptation of the novel about a straight man who goes undercover in the gay community to expose a serial killer. This movie, written and solely directed by Mathews, can be seen as similar in certain ways. Instead of a straight man navigating a predominantly gay space, here it's the reverse. It's a gay man navigating a predominantly straight space. Instead of exposing a serial killer, here the protagonist seems hell-bent to expose the perpetrator of some other crime.

Friedkin's film and Mathews' previous work with Franco were more direct explorations of homosexuality. That exploration isn't really the case here. This movie is more of an exploration of trauma. That trauma isn't very explicitly identified. It's hinted, but one can't be totally sure. That ambiguity doesn't help this film in terms of communicating a clear and distinct message. It's instead one of the few films that's more Rorschach test than narrative. It's more opaque character-study than clear portraiture. This is compounded due to the fact that Mathews utilizes little to no dialogue, as well as long one-takes and wide-shots that keep the audience at a distance.

Jonny Mars (A Ghost Story and Pit Stop) is the protagonist, a man named Alex, living somewhere in Texas out of the back of his van. He does have a video-camera and likes filming freeways. He has a fascination or obsession with Mandy, a woman in Portland who posts videos online that espouse something akin to New Age philosophy. He's drifting as a veritable vagabond until he visits an older woman, presumably his mom, who tells him a shocking secret.

Alex learns that a man he thought was dead isn't dead. This visibly upsets him. He finds where this man named John lives and he goes there. John is a very elderly shell with long, grey hair. John is very tall but he seems to be suffering from some kind of brain damage or mental condition. He actually can't speak. He can barely walk and he has a constant hand-tremor. There's no explanation as to what caused John to have this condition, but it requires another man named Lyel to take care of him on his isolated and tiny house out in the middle of nowhere, far from town.

Alex begins to stalk John. He visits John and searches his property. Eventually, he starts caring for John, not emotionally but physically. He feeds John, bathes John and even puts John to bed. All the while, the sense is conveyed that John is guilty of some crime against Alex or something happened in which John did something to Alex, which has tortured Alex greatly and created a seething rage in Alex that could become murderous.

Unfortunately, Alex never articulates what happened or what John did. Mathews provides some context clues that perhaps indicate what John's crime was, but it's not enough. Regardless, the assumption to be made is that John is guilty, which makes this movie one of several things. This movie could be about a guilty man having to reckon and face his victim, such as in Hard Candy (2005) or El Club (2016).

Since Mathews makes John, a brain-damaged mute, that kind of reckoning or confrontation is rendered null. Yet, this dynamic could potentially be compelling. Alex wants some kind of acknowledgment from John of what he did, a confession of sorts, but it's obvious Alex will never get it, not because the guilty man actively denies his guilt as in Hand Candy, or the recent The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) but because John's brain damage physically prevents him, so even if John wanted to confess, he can't. This presents therefore an interesting dilemma for Alex.

What will Alex do about this situation? Early scenes suggest this will become a revenge thriller where Alex will exact his rage upon someone and not necessarily the obvious person. Aside from Mandy and Lyel, Alex interacts with a Latino named Miguel, played by João Federici, as well as a teenage boy named Zach, played by Jordan Elsass. All of whom have tense moments or encounters with Alex, which imply either of the four could also be on the receiving end of Alex's possible, murderous rage.

Scenes in the film suggest that maybe multiple people do fall prey to Alex, but, unfortunately, with Mathews' extreme lack of exposition, it's difficult or next to impossible to buy or understand why. Those tense moments or encounters never can be tethered to anything more substantial. Mars' performance as Alex does overcome some of that lack of exposition as his eyes, face and occasional voice do convey a man damaged or scarred now desperate for something he's incapable of getting properly himself, so perhaps seeks it out in unhealthy ways.

Because of aesthetic and even premise similarities, Mathews could have gone the way of Jeremy Saulnier's Blue Ruin (2013). Yet, it's clear that Mathews isn't interested in those kinds of genre thrills, which includes expressions of violence. It's established in the beginning that Mathews' movie is building to a violent act at the end, but Mathews has no interest in showing or depicting that act. It's a level of restraint on Mathews' part that is respectable, if not commendable.

That restraint is certainly consistent throughout the film with one glaring exception. Dropped in the middle of this movie, Mathews has a sex scene that doesn't depict intercourse but it does involve full-frontal nudity. It's also unusual given that Alex is involved but he's not physically engaged. He has a motel room where three men are invited one at a time. Alex directs each man to disrobe and place a blindfold over their eyes. The first, two men sit on the edge of the bed and fondle or caress a younger third in between them, while Alex stands in the background, watches and hosts.

This scene could exist to show the kink these men like to indulge or have to indulge given some kind of externalized or internalized homophobia. Why do these men wear blindfolds? Does not seeing what they're doing absolve them or detach them from it? Does it enhance intimate contact somehow? We do see Alex in the background taking money out of the men's wallets. Like Robin Campillo's Eastern Boys (2015) or Eliza Hittman's Beach Rats (2017), this scene could therefore exist to show how gay men can be scammed or just basically robbed of money with the allure or promise of sex, no matter its form, especially if these men are repressed or closeted. Though it's not even clear if Alex is robbing them. Maybe he's taking some pre-arranged cut and if so, we don't know why they would pay him money for something the three men could conceivably do themselves. If Alex is stealing from them, the gullibility of the men to walk into this honey-trap is a little suspect, if possibly true.

Not Rated but contains full-frontal male nudity and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 19 mins.

In theaters in Los Angeles & select cities, starting June 1.
Available on DVD and VOD on June 5.

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