Bacon in a pan. A wall with colorful wallpaper and a close-up of a Japanese woman, covering her hands with her ears. A man sets up a camera to film heavy traffic on a Texan interstate. A body wrapped in plastic floats down a creek. Travis Mathews (best known for 2010 docu-fiction Interior. Leather Bar. starring James Franco) starts his new feature with a harsh juxtaposition of images that, over the course of the following eighty minutes, grow together into a narrative of trauma and survival, told with great urgency which often ventures into surreal, experimental terrain.
This is the story of Alex (Johnny Mars), who’s “constantly on the road” in his GMC van, filming the traffic, roaming about and having detached sexual encounters with a Mexican man (Joao Federici). In a tense encounter, his mother brings up someone from the family’s past. Someone thought to be gone for good. Alex is left distressed.
Enter John (Bob Swaffar), Alex’ grandfather, tall, lanky, and enveloped in a haze of detachment. He stares into the distance and his sole medium of communication is his twitching left hand. This hand seems to wave something away, or to perform an obscene gesture. He lives in a forlorn country house and Alex moves in for a few days, feeding John, observing him. An unspoken old secret keeps the men distant, as if both were buried below the sea. Across the field is a defunct barn overhung by oversized drapes with chained-up doors.
If there is a plot, it unfurls in a dreamlike fashion. Alex strikes up a friendship with an adolescent boy, Zach (Jordan Elsass) and films him next to John. His video art is influenced by Japanese video guru Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka). Her YouTube channel is aptly named ‘Gentle Rhythms’ and the movie is permeated by her eerie incantations. “I found your videos online… I feel you opened something up”, he confesses. Metonymically speaking, this applies to Mathews’ work, too.
Discreet is by no means an easy watching experience. Mathews leads his audience into a bog of accumulating disease by mixing up interiors and exteriors, sound and vision. The effect is similar to a Lynchian approach, edging up towards horror; the abrasiveness of his montage smelling strongly of Michael Haneke, especially in Caché, another exploration of trauma and hidden secrets. The movie is built largely on the principle of contrast and in a very striking (fantasy) scene, John’s giant figure slumps towards the viewer, blocking out the sun, a twitching black shape from a nightmare.
For large periods of time I couldn’t determine whether Alex was fabricating an intricate work of art or if he was about to snap. Johnny Mars performs with a fair measure of reservation that betrays a boyish interior of a man that, in Mars’ own words, “is looking for love to counteract the shame he is feeling.” Yet Discreet is less a showcase of acting or snappy dialogue, and more of an audiovisual reconstruction of subconscious mechanisms. Tension is created by the immobile camera, long static shots that establish a frame and let elements populate it one by one, watching how they interact in this space, entering and leaving it. Unusual perspectives turn the audience into voyeurs, looking out from the trunk of a car, showing reflections on TV screens and hubcaps, watching from a distance where the wind sweeps away the words the characters are saying.
In the Q&A after the Berlinale screening, Mathews repeatedly pointed out the importance of sound design and it’s very evident that sound is a major theme in Discreet. It brings closure and healing at its best and is disturbing and off-putting at its worst. Where does it come from and who is hearing it? Droning, telephones, car noises, hissing, snapping and popping, whispering and smashing are just some examples of the sounds that steal the spotlight from the visuals and are felt physically. In addition, Mandy is a performer of ASMR, autonomous sensory meridian response, an online video community which garners a huge following in Texas. ASMR is used for treatment of insomnia and PTSD and mainly consists of women whispering soft phrases into a 3D microphone, repeating slogans, saying affirmations, brushing the microphone or making soft, repetitive sounds. Admittedly, these videos have erotic, sensual undertones.
As the movie progresses we penetrate Alex’s headspace and the sounds gain independence and power. Alex uses them to find his own peace, even when he fails to connect with Mandy in a significant way. The other side of the spectrum to ASMR are radio snippets of right-wing speakers, sharply addressing deviant elements, such as homosexuals. We see campaign signs saying ‘Trump, Pence’ and Mathews explains he filmed Discreet during a time he thought would bring about a change for the better, a future under Hilary Clinton where 2016 could be seen as “a flashback on a nightmare we just missed.”
Ultimately, the movie finds a violent solution that is not fully disclosed, yet justified given its long marinade. I am aware that this is the part where I should come forward with a verdict – the truth is, I am still not sure whether I liked this movie or whether it is a good movie. I admire the craft that went into it and the audacity of Mathews’ vision, the fact that even though stretches of the movie feel like they are testing the audience a bit too hard and are too serious for their own good, this has its consequences, the same way a traffic accident leads to smashed hoods and torn limbs. Not everyone is a fan of accidents, though, and roughly a third of the audience at Kino International took an early trip home.
Side note: The English language distinguishes between the homophones ‘discreet’ and ‘discrete’. ‘Discreet’ means ‘unobtrusive’, ‘unpretentious’, ‘unnoticeable.’ ‘Discrete’ however stands for two separate elements that are distinct and form no entity. I say the elements in Discreet do form an uncanny entity and if you have an open mind, watch it. As for the first definition, I wish I could get that twitching hand out of my mind.