After years in hiding and struggling to control his demons, an eccentric drifter returns home and discovers that his childhood abuser, the centre of his pain, is still alive. Armed with this knowledge, the drifter plots his revenge, all the while navigating the perilous land of masculine fragility in modern-day America.

Travis Mathews maintains his controversial, independent filmmaking credentials with Discreet. A bold vision, he’s proven that he can unsettle an audience previously, with Interior, Leather Bar and I Want Your Love still defining moments in his career.

Discreet gives us the juxtaposition of Mandy, apparently an online life guru, played by Atsuko Okatsuka, and Alex, played by Johnny Mars, two people who couldn’t be further apart, yet are drawn together by one’s obsession for the other.

Mathews plays with the mundane, stripping away any glossy excitement of life and focusing on something that feels real.  The characters find joy in what they have, not what they want, and the secrets they hold beneath their surface are prone to bleeding through.  

The performances are raw as the lifelong horror of Alex’s childhood abuse resurfaces when he discovers his abuser, John, is still alive and he sets out on a journey of redemption.  As Alex encounters his abuser, he finds a physically broken man, he finds himself staying with the man who caused him such pain, having claimed to be a relative, as he tries to decide what to do next.

Alex’s story intertwines with Mandy’s, whilst an adult bookstore plays host to a number of charged encounters.  Throw into the mix a fascination with a young man, and Alex’s world is a complex one, if somewhat unfulfilling.

Alex is a disturbed individual, not just from his past, but from his penchant for unconventional encounters and Jonny Mars portrays that well. There’s something cold, calculating and occasionally criminal in his actions, without it being over the top and without too much explanation.

Mandy, by contrast, is trying to improve lives in her web series and pops up every so often but with little to do aside from cook bacon and spout guru statements, whilst being Alex’s muse for a better life.  We also get a conspiracy fuelled rantings of a talk show radio host who sees evil everywhere aside from in his own words. Between these two outside influences into Alex’s life, Mathews gives the suggestion of Alex’s turmoil, the calm versus the chaos.

The film is wonderfully shot, exploiting its arty feel with unconventional camera angles that make the more conventional setups as unsettling as the story. And, unsettling is what Mathews does well.

It’s in the script that the issue lay.  Mathews crafts a glimpse of a tale of pain, sorrow and redemption, of being unable to move on from the past, but realising that one is always tied to it, yet it’s a concept that, in this film, lose its way somewhat.  As he unpicks the trauma that Alex faced, he lacks the ability to articulate this in his writing, despite an attempt to convey anguish and emotion.  Disappointingly, it leaves the viewer feeling little for Alex even as his behaviour becomes more erratic.  We should be feeling his turmoil and be perturbed by his actions, yet the viewer is left cold.

Curiously, as the film moves towards its conclusion, Discreet suffers from the weight of its own ambition and not from its presentation.  The performances are largely solid, the cinematography is impressive, it’s the script that occasionally limps along and the conclusion that feels underwhelming.  It struggles to strike a balance and you may find yourself more engaged by the look of the film than the events therein.

Dir: Travis Mathews

Scr: Travis Mathews

Cast: Jonny Mars, Atsuko Okatsuka, Bob Swaffar, Jordan Elsass

Prd: Fred Daniel, Sarah Rippy, Jonathan Duffy, Thomas Fernandes, Kelly Williams, João Federici, Jonny Mars, Travis Mathews, Chris Ohlson, PJ Raval, Don Swaynos

DOP: Drew Xanthopoulos

Country: USA

Year: 2017

Runtime: 80 mins

Discreet is available on DVD and VOD from 23rd July 2018.