(Travis Matthews LBGTQ thriller Discreet opens theatrically in Los Angeles and many other cities as well as on VOD June 1.)
It really came as no surprise when I searched for writer-director Travis Mathews’ Discreet on IMDB and discovered an advertisement for a post listing “Movies too uncomfortable to watch with your partner.” IMDB definitely got that advertising algorithm right. That is not to say, in my humble opinion, that you should not watch Discreet with your partner. If anything, you should. It will be a good way to test your respective comfort zones and it’s sure to incite an intriguing post-screening conversation. It might tear the two of you apart, but that’s probably for the better.
Alex (Jonny Mars) describes himself as “always on the road.” Driving around in his van, he finds solace in the rhythm of traffic patterns. He is a fascinating contradiction in terms. He listens to an ultra-conservative radio station hosted by a far-right wingnut with a fearmongering, sexist and xenophobic agenda akin to Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones. Alex is also obsessed with Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka), a new age-y YouTube celebrity who performs ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response). The far-right propaganda feeds Alex’s perception of masculinity, while Mandy’s YouTube videos provide Alex with tools to find peace and tranquility.
Conveyed non-linearly, Discreet discreetly reveals that Alex is suffering from PTSD as a result of childhood trauma. He seeks to confront the demons of his past while juggling the seemingly uncomfortable impulses of his present. Judging by the situations we find Alex in, he is a bit of a voyeur. He invites men to participate in “discreet orgies,” during which he blindfolds the participants and allows them to fondle each other while the sounds of straight porn indiscreetly emit from a television. This setup allows Alex to clandestinely steal his clients’ money; it also provides a visual representation of how repressed and embarrassing gay sex is to his presumably conservative clients. These are Texas (read: conservative) men who do not want to admit their sexual leanings since it is so contradictory to their far-right doctrine, so they opt to act upon their affinity for other men discreetly. Regardless of his clients’ perspectives, the orgies seem like an enjoyable experience for Alex, although he does require whiskey to numb his conservative apprehensions.
Discreet essentially questions whether far-right conservatives are the way that they are because of a shame of their uncomfortable pasts (abuse, molestation, addict parents). Matthews somehow (with the assistance of Mars’ uncompromisingly raw performance) establishes Alex as an empathetic human being, despite his thievery, predatory nature, and propensity for vengeful violence. This is precisely where the uncomfortable post-screening conversations will begin. Matthews permits us with a keen insight into what has made Alex this way. Do we really blame him for needing to confront his past? Okay, so how do we feel about the pre-pubescent boy(s) he involves in the confrontation? And isn’t Alex’s creepy van just a calling card for a pedophiliac?
There are a few other things worth pointing out. First of all, Discreet relies heavily upon the English homophones of discreet and discrete, carefully playing upon both definitions, specifically in its representation of Alex. Secondly, Matthews’ use of sound is nothing short of masterful. While Discreet seems like an exercise in the juxtaposition of images and sounds, Matthews really fixates on the audible elements. He alternates between annoying and grating sounds (such as buzzing, humming, ringing, and doors slamming) with seemingly pleasing sounds (such as sex noises or auditory elements with a soothingly repetitive and/or rhythmic nature). It is pretty brilliant sound design, I must admit. Matthews really sets it all up perfectly with the opening consecutive shots of the frying pan of bacon, fading into Mandy’s face, fading into the gentle rapids of a river. The contradictory visual elements all end up blending together seamlessly thanks in no small part to the soothing rhythm of the sounds (yes, sizzling bacon does sound like gentle rapids). Sound also plays a major role because of ASMR. While it is used as a treatment of PTSD, it is nothing short of erotic (featuring whispering, breathy voices). It leaves us to pontificate whether Alex feels the relief of his PTSD, or if he is merely turned on by Mandy’s voice. But what would the wackadoodle conservative radio host think of Alex liking an Asian-American woman?
Discreet is definitely an uncomfortable experience. It is quite uncompromising, for which I give Matthews the utmost credit. This is a film that will surely upset audiences – more importantly it will get them talking. Presumably, when Matthews was shooting Discreet he had no suspicions that Trump would become President. But with Trump as our President, does that not give this film even greater significance?
– Don Simpson (@thatdonsimpson)