The sound of bacon being fried has never been more intense than in the opening moments of Discreet, the divisive new film from Interior. Leather Bar director Travis Matthews. This opening shot of bacon frying in a pan and bubbling over is soon mixed in to a mirage of new age images, with the soundtrack growing to a cacophony of eerily hypnotic noises conjured by the most mundane objects- a disquieting combination of audio and visuals, that is somehow being used as a stress relief video within the film.
This sensory overload that overwhelms from the opening moment is a summation of the film’s overall effect. Like this sequence, the film seems tailor made to leave audiences uncomfortable by offering a more unflinching look at something so ordinary – in this case, the dark heart of Texas in the lead up to the 2016 Presidential election, where “Trump/Pence” signs can be found in the front yards of seemingly every other front yard in town. The narrative isn’t explicitly about any political issue, but the context in which the story is being told is of equal importance. This is a film about a sexual abuse survivor coming to terms with the crimes perpetrated against him thirty years later, and the unflinching, heartless Republican wasteland the film is set in is a perfect embodiment of why personal demons are internalised instead of addressed in the first place.
Jonny Mars plays Alex, a drifter who wades back in to his hometown with the aim of confronting the man who abused him sexually as a child. Upon tracking down his former abuser, finding that he is frail and crippled with physical and mental illness, his original vengeance quest is paused and he continues to lead an existence outside of mainstream society. He is, after all, a man of few words, devoting his free time to either making money pimping himself or other people out- and it should be noted, although this issue is handled with surprising restraint, that the sexual partners he tends to visit are all significantly older men, which could be interpreted as a reason for his relationship with his abuser to become more complicated.
Of course, <Discreet doesn’t offer any easy answers, offering viewers the chance to fall down a rabbit hole of interpretations as to the extent of Alex’s sexuality and how it’s been affected by trauma (heterosexual porn plays out in the background of every sexual encounter), as well as other equally important aspects of his life- such as his willingness to listen to angry alt-right radio sermons, and how that conflicts with his obsession with the previously mentioned stress relief vlogger.
The film resembles a more opaque equivalent of director Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, in its documentation of how child abuse can lead to a complicated relationship with sexuality. Here, everything is definitively passionless and transactional, with overtones of subordination added to the mix on Alex’s part. It is troubling to address the reasons why these issues are there, but it is designed that way. There’s no catharsis or exposition to his character’s motivations or the inner turmoil driving him. He is written as illusory, a fact which has already led to Discreet having received sharply divided reactions since premiering at Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section earlier this year.
The reactions are completely understandable, as some aspects of Alex’s character feel less mysterious than underwritten, such as him repeatedly listening to fear mongering right wing rhetoric. But that may snap back in to place on future viewings, because Discreet keeps its cards so close to its chest, that even the slightest gesture in Jonny Mars’ extraordinarily restrained performance may evoke an explanatory reading. There will be many experimental films in this year’s Outfest line up, but few that will stay lingering on the imagination as much as Discreet. It may not appear to achieve the fully rounded exploration of a troubled mental state on first viewing, but I’d be surprised if audiences weren’t compelled to re-enter this hell hole world in order to search for deeper meaning. Despite the disturbing subject matter and matter of fact way in which it is dealt, it’s hard not to search for deeper meaning when coming face to face with a character so believably broken beyond belief.