directed by Sebastián Silva
starring Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Michael Cera, Caleb Landry Jones
There are a multitude of clever, small tension-building mechanisms at play in Sebastián Silva’s newest feature, Tyrel, which due to the specific casting, will of course draw comparison to last year’s Get Out, but here, what will become the strongest generator of tension is our concern for the outcome of the main character based on our understanding of what can occur in Silva’s work, which is usually aimed at challenging the ethos of Americans who consider themselves progressive. Specifically here, I am thinking about Silva’s controversial 2015 feature, Nasty Baby, which had as its protagonists, a gay couple who wish to have a child, joined by their female friend who is acting as their surrogate mother, and the grief that they endure and the action that they regrettably take once they are threatened.
In fact, the Chilean-born Silva, in his relatively short career as a director, has had his way in poking sharp holes into the American left’s perception of their own racial and social tolerance, tolerances that are usually coupled with the image that we hope to present to others as non-ethnocentric beings. Usually, Silva attacks this image by portraying the affluent left as a group who will invariably betray their deeply held beliefs the moment their safety is threatened, or in the case of the narrative of Tyrel, when a copious amount of alcohol or mind altering substance is in play, which was also the case in another of Silva’s features, Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus, which starred the director’s favorite ugly American, Michael Cera (actually Cera is a Canadian, Sebastián). We’ve been on these finger-pointing excursions into the American left with Silva before, and with those cinematic experiences firmly implanted in our memory, we are about to meet Tyler.
Jason Mitchell is Tyler, or Tyrel, as he is called in a misunderstood introduction, the first micro-aggression committed against our protagonist by a friend of his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott), who is taking Tyler up to the scenic mountain home of an old Argentine friend, Nico (Nicolas Arze), for a brotastic weekend to celebrate the birth of Pete (Caleb Landry Jones from Get Out), another of Johnny’s friends. Tyler, who is heading to the country to avoid the familial intensity stemming from his girlfriend’s sick mother’s decision to reject dialysis treatments, is now going to be the new guy and the only African-American on this retreat surrounded by Johnny’s old buddies, which will naturally will make him feel out of place, but the many possible sources of uneasiness is what is key here: How much of the general awkwardness that Tyler seems to feel is coming from just being in a house of strangers? How does this discomfort change with those strangers’ growing level of intoxication? With their awkward insensitive racial remark? And perhaps, with the overall need for any group of animals, humans or otherwise, to test the new being in the group by seeing how far they can push him? What will send the friendly Tyler into a rage? Adding into the tension is the setting of a comfortably snowed-over Martha Stewart-ish winter home, complete with Christmas light adornment, a home that might potentially be a blackout away from a setting closer to John Carpenter’s claustrophobic horror classic, The Thing, with the invasive alien entity being replaced by the time period of the film, the winter after the 2016 election that won Trump the White House, which was the culmination of a campaign that we all know caused more violent verbal riffs about race and class than any campaign in recent U.S. history.
What becomes apparent and admirable about Silva’s construction of characters and situations in Tyrel, a construction that is intended to have the audience gyrating in their seats as they fear the oncoming conclusion, is that given recent films like Get Out and Silva’s own filmography, the director can reference a plethora of moments to bombard you with cinematic cliches that you will immediately recognize as beneficent. You get the overly sympathetic gay man in the group, who will of course side with Tyler, and the kind hearted foreigner (the Sebastián Silva stand-in) who provides outside wisdom of how the world truly is, and who will try in vain to explain the way it should be to counteract the vulgar utterances dispensed by the drunken Americans in the group, who will of course team up against our beleaguered hero Tyler, who at one point is even put to the ultimate test of having to participate in a fate worse than death: an impromptu R.E.M. fireside sing-along of the group’s obnoxious hit, “Stand,” which in this author’s mind is a moment that should never occur in any free society that values basic human decency. Tyler’s reaction to this does appear like he is feeling out of place, and so he appears annoyed as many of us would, but is it really this particular outpouring of suburban white pride that is getting at Tyler, or is it something else rumbling under the surface?
A key moment that might shed some light on the answer occurs early in the film. Before any of the frenetic drunkenness takes place, Tyler leaves the home to find a cell phone hotspot to speak with his girlfriend, Carmen, who begs Tyler to stay on the phone and pray along with her and her family in Spanish. During what should be a solemn moment, we see Tyler looking disinterested and checking out prank videos on his phone and playing on Instagram. Juxtapose that with a moment later in the film when the bro gathering begins to scrutinize and then burn a bunch of religious paintings. In this scene, Tyler appears to become agitated again and is slightly calmed down by Johnny, who tells Tyler that there is no intended anti-religious meaning behind the burning, and that, in fact, burning items is just a common release for the group, suggesting that Tyler’s anger is less about Johnny’s friends entitled acting-out or blasphemous behavior, and more about how this moment of immolating religious imagery recalls Tyler’s own guilt for feigning interest during his failed moment of prayer with his girlfriend.
There clearly are moments in Tyrel where Tyler’s race becomes the brunt of jokes, and Silva does set up these scenes for the audience to create empathy for his protagonist and to drive the tension to build towards a dramatic climax, but we also see Tyler as someone who rarely cares about anyone else but himself throughout the entire narrative as well. Sure, he doesn’t want to (nor should he have to) partake in the R.E.M. sing-along, but why is he so adamant against playing ping pong? He is at a birthday celebration after all. And, why did he decide to go to a birthday celebration of someone he does not know instead of being with his girlfriend, who needs his support as she tries to cope with her mother’s grave and fatal decision? If Tyler does not want to be around this group of strangers, nor around his girlfriend and her family, where does he want be?
Thus, is Tyler’s alienation his overreaction to the mindless titular name mistake that begins the weekend with Johnny’s friends? Or, is he regretting his decision to spend a weekend hanging out instead of being with his girlfriend? Does being around Johnny’s friends bring out a nagging guilt about what Tyler has had to do in quashing his own identity to become a successful restaurateur, or is there simply nowhere that Tyler, or any person of color, will feel comfortable in this post-Trump election America? Tyrel does an amazing amount with its small and larger observations in its short 84 minute running time, and the film is a huge step forward for the always provocative Silva, who for the first time with his storytelling devices, leaves the target of the finger-pointing for the audience to determine.
Tyrel is in theaters and available on-demand now.