This review is published in partnership with Melbourne International Film Festival’s Critics Campus program.
Tyrel is not death by a thousand cuts — it’s just a thousand cuts, with whiskey poured over them. Sebastián Silva’s latest film is another of the Chilean director’s trademark provocations, an exercise in alienation and crazy-making with bravura performances from a cast including Jason Mitchell, Christopher Abbott, Caleb Landry Jones and Michael Cera. Tyrel has all the makings of a social thriller: its quasi-eponymous hero, Tyler (Jason Mitchell) appears to be the only black person for miles around, stranded in a remote cabin in the Catskills as part of a ‘guys’ weekend’ — with no phone reception, to boot. With the afterimage of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) still lingering in the public imagination, audiences, at least those unfamiliar with Silva’s work, may expect his film to take an equally heightened turn for the worse.
Indeed, Tyrel is similarly peppered with micro-aggressions — “the everyday subtle and often automatic ‘put downs’ and insults directed toward Black Americans”, as defined by Harvard professor Chester Pierce, who coined the term in the 1970s. In the Catskills, white men seem to spawn endlessly out of thin air, each new arrival compounding Tyler’s simultaneous isolation and hypervisibility. Snow covers everything outside — a claustrophobic whiteness. The men subject Tyler to varying degrees of alienation, from calling him “Tyrel” to interrogating the way he eats grits. But these moments are placed amongst disparate scenes of drunken depravity, and it is unclear what, if anything, they are building to. Moments of unease rise and fall, never reaching a boiling point. However, each micro-aggression contributes to the tension of subsequent scenes; every moment carries the potential for another act of covert racism. From Role Models to Ali G, non-black people have turned the question “Is it because I’m black?” — a question clearly nagging at Tyler — into a punchline, effectively ensuring that no black person can ask it and be taken seriously. Tyler is placed in an environment where he must constantly question the legitimacy of his discomfort, and wonder if he’s misreading things, if he’s the one who’s wrong.
Over the weekend, the men entertain themselves with party games of varying degrees of stupidity, beginning with an overtly racist accent imitation game. Tyler laughs uncomfortably as his friend Johnny (Christopher Abbott) mocks a Chinese accent, an uneasy witness to racism-as-recreation. Every man is pressured to participate, but the game is brought to a halt when Dylan (Roddy Bottum) refuses to imitate a “black accent” (and questions what that even means). In an effort to lighten the mood, the men move on to the “Wikipedia game”, in which they improvise lengthy explanations of random subjects. When it’s Tyler’s turn, he is asked to talk about black holes. In the context of the night, one might wonder — why black holes? But Tyler says nothing, perhaps for fear of appearing hypersensitive. Micro-aggressions, as writes academic Jey C. Ehrenhalt, “leave minorities doubting their experience, wondering if questionable treatment was due to [their] identity. This psychological experience is a form of “crazy-making”, an undermining tactic used by perpetrators in abusive relationships in order to maintain the cycle of power and control.”
Further contributing to the confusion is Alan (Michael Cera), an offbeat latecomer and the only one who openly addresses the elephant in the room. Cera approaches the role with a confident disregard for his image, similar to his prior collaborations with Silva (such as 2013’s Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus). “Never trust the white man; he’ll leave you to die in the wilderness,” Alan jokes, self-aware self-deprecation positioning him as an uncertain ally. Indeed, none of the men are just antagonistic — they rant about the 2016 election (Tyrel is refreshingly specific in its anger about contemporary U.S. politics, using not metaphor or allegory, but direct reference to real events), Pete (Caleb Landry Jones) calls another man a cynic for mocking the Women’s March, and they try to engage Tyler in their anger, under the assumption that a common enemy makes them friends. But Tyler is the most passive of all the raging men; perhaps he is not reeling with shock in the way they are. As many a black writer noted, the “newly revealed” racism of the U.S. was not news to black Americans. And, though the white men in the cabin are outraged, little has changed for them. Oblivious to their insensitivity — and perversely, almost gleeful about the apocalyptic state of their country — they later dance to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”.
Every scene bubbles not with the direct threat of violence, but its possibility. Moments like Pete’s “whiskey slaps” game (exactly what it sounds like — taking shots and slapping each other) are on the edge of the razor, light-hearted interactions carrying the potential for real danger. Tyler’s distress is palpable, his alienation made physical as he moves through the space with increasingly drunken anguish. None of the men are innocent, and those who don’t directly antagonise Tyler are still culpable for their silence in the face of their friends’ racism. Dylan, the one gay man in the group, has the most needling conscience, and in his exhaustion with the straight men he seems to feel an affinity with Tyler. But that is little solace to Tyler himself.
We may expect these relentless micro-aggressions to amount to something — a confrontation, a blow-up — but in real life that is so rarely what happens. Confrontation is particularly improbable when the perpetrators are also Tyler’s hosts, the only thing between him and an isolated hinterland. The realism of Tyrel’s narrative is underscored by its formal technique. Cinematographer Alexis Zabe (The Florida Project, Post Tenebras Lux) captures the weekend’s bonding rituals in a shaky, handheld style that recalls the nightmarish hazing scenes of Andrew Neel’s Goat (2016); naturalistic, improvised conversations are skilfully edited together by Sofía Subercaseaux; and the soundtrack is entirely diegetic. Tyrel’s refusal to leave the bounds of realism lends it a unique intrigue and unpredictability.
Tyrel’s final fifteen minutes are particularly surprising in their subversion of narrative expectations. In a sudden digression from the suffocating cabin, Tyler breaks off and visits the house of a woman (Ann Dowd) who’d introduced herself when he arrived. Her husband (Reg E. Cathey) brings a surreal energy to the film as a reticent, sleepy saxophonist and the first black person Tyler has encountered all weekend. The house is a brief beacon of hope, of potential sanctuary for Tyler, but not a realistic one. He is a drunken intruder. He returns to the men. Silva leaves us on an uncomfortable, hanging note, frozen in the uncertain tableau of a group selfie. Conflicts are unresolved and, largely, unaddressed. The film’s apparent anticlimax dares its audience to say “nothing happened” — but to do so is to dismiss every micro-aggression levelled at Tyler throughout the film. It is clear that the weekend’s events have affected him profoundly, especially considering the political context under which they’ve occurred. These small incidents of racism, Tyrel suggests, do not need to culminate in anything resolute. The incidents alone are enough.