By Katie Walsh
Chilean filmmaker Sebastian Silva is at his best when crafting pitch-perfect situational dramas that reveal uncomfortable truths about human nature. Often fuelled by substances, the characters in Silva’s films careen around each other until a character’s vulnerability, in a moment of heightened emotion, brings the situation crashing to the ground. His most recent effort, Tyrel is thematically closest to his 2013 film, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, where a couple of American hippies search for a hallucinogenic cactus in the wilds of Chile. But Tyrel is planted firmly in America, and it’s perfectly American in the specific ways it spirals out of control.
Jason Mitchell stars as Tyler, who’s tagging along for a guys’ trip in upstate New York with his buddy Johnny (Christopher Abbott). It’s important to note Tyler is black, while Johnny and all the other guys gathering to celebrate Pete’s (Caleb Landry Jones) birthday are white. They are white in ways they are completely blind to, and Tyler (and the audience, through his perspective) cannot ignore them.
Silva captures the intimacy of the dude getaway so well it feels like spying, eavesdropping on something secretive and private: the conversations, games and feats of strength and drink of which men partake as ritualistic bonding. It’s loose, casual and excessively chatty, but Silva’s camera carefully picks out the meaningful glances, the microaggressions, the jabbing remarks, the jokes that toe the line of decency.
But what Silva and the actors capture with such aching perfection is the culture of male whiteness that pervades the band of hipster boys. And as the outsider, Tyler provides the ideal point of view through which to observe this. There’s their casual cultural appropriation, their cavalier entitlement, but the most glaring indication of their specific brand of whiteness are repeated singalongs to R.E.M’s classic hits. Tyler’s drunken side-eye at the group scream-singing It’s the End of the World as We Know It speaks volumes about the men and their culture.
Tyrel beautifully articulates the emotional experience of being stuck at an awkward sleepover, where one can be ridiculed for not participating or scolded for overcompensating. Mitchell is absolutely devastating in his performance, especially in the moments where Tyler seeks tiny respites, snatching moments away from the banter, chaos and mental sparring. He’s reading Lord of the Flies, never realising he is in Lord of the Flies. When the wealthy, insouciant prankster Alan (Michael Cera) shows up, Tyler latches onto him as an amusing ally. Alan is both his salvation and his demise as Tyler spirals out in an emotional, alcohol-fuelled evening.
Don’t expect digestible lessons or easy answers from Silva. His explorations of group dynamics aren’t easily tied up in a bow. Rather, he dives into the messiness of human interaction, seeking out those moments of raw, revealing emotion. He wants to tease out how it happens and what the repercussions are. Tyrel isn’t just personal. There’s a profound political undercurrent that heightens the tension in the room, and the film is Silva’s most political work yet. Though it is sly and subtle, the intention is palpable, the emotions elicited all too real, and ultimately, Tyrel proves to be a fascinating entry in his body of work. – TNS
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