Childhood abuse affects its victims in myriad and often abstract ways. The disparate images and mysterious female voiceover that provide Travis Mathews’ “Discreet” its illusory opening do eventually come together, like the concentric cycles of abuse and pain experienced by its woeful protagonist, Alex (Jonny Mars).
A drifter and filmmaker, Alex travels the country in a dark blue van shooting footage of highways. On a passing visit to his unstable mother, he learns that the man who abused him is living in a small cabin on the outskirts of the rural Texas town where his mother lives. Seeking out the older man, Alex finds a severely incapacitated John (Bab Swaffar), complete with an involuntary twitch in his left arm and a vacant stare.
John is a ghoulish cartoon of a predator; even in his weakened state, his fluffy white beard, ruddy red nose, and lanky frame tower over Alex. Facing a demon who is unable to remember him or even acknowledge his presence, Alex’s vengeful machinations become complicated. He begins showing up at John’s house only to feed him soup and take him on walks outside. He is clearly waiting for something, though just what is unclear, and the viewer must wait with him.
Mathews and cinematographer Drew Xanthopoulos infuse each frame with an ominous tension, achieving the suspicion that something sinister is always lurking just offscreen. As Alex eavesdrops from a diner stool on teenage Zach (Jordan Elsass) as he complains about his busted bike tire, the camera practically side-eyes the whole exchange. The next time we see Zach, it is from afar and through Alex’s windshield. Filmed from the back of the van and over Alex’s shoulder; the frame within the frame implicates the viewer in Alex’s voyeurism.
The plot remains shadowy as Mathews dangles his enigmatic threads: Alex’s cruising trips to a porn shop, where he services Miguel (João Federici) on his knees; the meditative self-help videos that provide disembodied voiceovers from a woman named Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka); and the orgies Alex orchestrates through craigslist where he orders men to strip naked, blindfolds them, then robs them as they rub each other.
Narrowly avoiding the trap of abstraction for abstraction’s sake, the reasons for these disparate moving pieces reveal themselves by the film’s end: Alex’s hope for connection with Mandy (he was planning to meet up with her in Portland) is dashed when she tells him to stop harassing her or she will call the police. Miguel, with his white beard and furry chest, is an attractive stand-in for John, signifying Alex’s reclamation of power. This idea is reinforced by the orgy, which shows Alex shifting fluidly between sexual power dynamics, while also adding a (very brief) moment of sexy levity.
While tearing down the walls of Alex’s rotting house makes for an evocative journey, it is not one everyone will want to take. The murky opening and aloof characters are not immediately accessible, and while the implication that the abused become abusers may be statistically supported, it won’t sit well with those who have adapted more healthily than Alex. Mathews does little to dispel the stereotype of the gay pedophile, however artistically rendered.
As a follow-up to “Interior. Leather Bar.,” the director takes a decisive leap forward with “Discreet,” building Alex’s world with a rare blend of meandering and laser-beam focus. The layers of Alex’s revenge plan mingle with the layers of his pain to paint a menacing portrait of a deeply scarred individual. As the tension builds to its harrowing conclusion, and Alex begins to bare his teeth, Mathews pulls enough tricks from his sleeve to make “Discreet” a worthy digression.
“Discreet” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2017.