Travis Mathews, USA
A lonely drifter travels across Texas in an old, white van without air conditioning. He is tormented by his past and is desperately trying to make sense of his current situation. The film opens with random short camera shots which include shots of sizzling bacon, an online Asian meditation therapist (Atsuko Okatsuka) from Oregon, yellow-flowered Laura Ashley wallpaper which dissolves into other hidden images as well as undecipherable sounds of something either ripping or snapping. All of this expresses the mental state of Alex (Jonny Mars), a homeless drifter seeking comfort, love and closure to his past nightmares. Instead he uses discreet hook-up apps to connect to old, white, anonymous men pretending to be straight which lead to unsatisfying relationships and discontinuity in his present frame of mind. Alex’s comfort zone is filled with watch hours of sizzling bacon in a pan, a river winding through the landscape and a mediation voice telling him that he, too, can get well. He attempts to make a home video at the suggestion from this online meditation therapist, Mandy, who such a soothing voice, that we believe he may find his way.
Mathews uses his educational background in psychology in the use of his camera work to create a patchwork reality of Alex’s mind. The use of some repeating images, as well as blank spots and an eerie feeling that something is quite linear sends us a clear message of how messed up Alex really is. The Buddhist healing meditation, the interstate highways, the winding river images, as well as strange sounds that don’t connect to those images, make the viewer feel the same anxiety that the character is feeling. Mars does an excellent job going beneath the surface and finding a stunted man, trying to save himself. It is inevitable that we will feel empathy towards him even if we don’t understand his actions.
At some point he meets with his estranged mother (Joy Cunningham) by chance. She verifies that the monster (Bob Swaffar) hidden in his nightmares was real and is very much alive and living in Texas. This psychosexual thriller begins to spiral inwards as Alex begins to plot his revenge on a man who robbed him of a normal life. Will he be able to hold it together long enough, as he makes his way through this confused and mental alienated landscape that is his normal state in order to take action?
A lot of thought went into the creation of the character of Alex, which was a joint effort between director Travis Mathews and the main actor Jonny Mars who spent many hours on the phone discussing politics; somewhere along the line the Alex character was created. Mathews filmed in the summer of 2015 travelling around in the same white van featured in the film and explained at the Berlinale Film Festival, “I was listening to the AM talk radio and really soaked up the environment around me. The environment being both what I was experiencing in the gay hook-up apps which was a lot of down-low discretion -discreet-discreet-discreet, internalizing homophobia, racism, shame and fear, which I was seeing in the gay community and at the same time, taking in the rise of an all-white movement which used to be in the fringes such as the Alex Joneses and the Rush Limbaughs. They used to be those wacky voices, that now are ascending in the march of power that felt scary. As a film maker, there is so much content out there. I feel if you don’t want to do something, be bold or make a statement, even if you might piss people off or turn some people off, it is important for me to do so. I took the “soup” that what I was describing was what I was feeling and wanted to funneled it into the Alex character.”
Mathews explained further,” I wanted to make a political film that wasn’t hitting you over the head with politics, but, if you sat with it a little and paid attention, then you could see what the politics are. Alex had primitive ways of coping since nothing was linear for him. He is trying to heal himself through technology.” Mars added, “He had tools to survive and adapt. He lived in a gap somewhere between homelessness and poverty. He doesn’t have an address, so there is no government institution that can help him.” Mars also believes that “the computer, social apps and cell phones which are used now to communicate is a big problem and is creating very dangerous agenda that is slowly plaguing the world, which is going to have to be dealt with at some point. It is reinforcing tribalism and is not allowing us to listen. We are not seeing people and it is two dimensional. The future generations are going to have to deal with this problem.” This is a film that has many layers and clearly needs to be seen more than once to catch everything that is going on.
*Please don’t confuse this film with the 2008 film by Joshua Rous which has the same name.