Film Review: Discreet

A disturbed loner begins to unravel in this contemplative thriller that's less interested in conventional thrills than in drawing viewers into the protagonist's off-kilter world view.
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Texas-born and raised Alex's (Jonny Mars) life has been defined by the fact that as a child he was sexually molested by older neighbor John (Bob Swaffar). To say that he hasn't made much of himself is a serious understatement: Alex lives out of his van, driving to the rhythm of right-wing radio ranting about liberal extremists and stopping to shoot video footage of traffic and highways. He's no good at relationships or holding a job. He's obsessed with pretty YouTube personality Mandy (Atsuko Okatsuka), whose show "Gentle Rhythms" is built around her blandly clichéd reflections on living a "wakeful life" and wants to show her his films in person—the kind of misguided idea of which no good can possibly come.

And yet things actually can still go downhill. During a visit with his mother—herself one of the walking wounded and a self-described "recovery junkie”—Alex is informed that she lied when she told him, years ago, that his molester was dead. That revelation sends Alex in search of the man he blames for ruining his life, by pretty much every standard an even worse idea than going to Portland to meet Mandy or giving a lift to cute high-school student Zack (Jordan Elsass).

There are echoes of Lodge Kerrigan's 1993 Clean, Shaven in Travis Mathews' portrait of a man held hostage by the demons in his head—notably that both films are designed to draw viewer inside the protagonists' off-kilter worldview, one in which actions that are clearly the product of disordered thinking make perfect sense to the character doing them. Clean, Shaven is more immersive, which by definition makes Discreet both easier to watch and less gripping—even though viewers know early on that the movie is headed to a very bad place. That said, Jonny Mars' performance is a strong one, made more impressive by the fact that Alex is an easy character to dislike. Yes, he's been abused, but he's manipulative, obsessive, unpredictable and headed for a meltdown. Swaffar is equally strong in an even more difficult role, given that John is non-verbal, a child molester and afflicted with a masturbatory-looking tremor in one hand; his performance lends the film a queasy balance. It's not a fun movie, nor should it be—the legacy of sexual abuse isn't a fun topic. But it's quietly haunting and its intricate, subtle sound mix, full of unidentifiable pops and snaps, contributes powerfully to the quiet creepiness.

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