Tyger, Tyger is released on all major digital platforms June 28th
I have a policy in writing film reviews. And over the years, it’s a policy that has served me well. It’s simple; I never read anyone else’s review of a film before I watch it. Now I know this may sound counterproductive for a writer who thrives on you, the public, reading my reviews before you watch a film. So, let me explain.
For any writer, the act of reading a review before you watch a film can lead to unconscious bias. After all, it’s easy to have someone else’s words floating around your head as you unpick your thoughts and feelings about a movie. However, a few days after the credits have rolled and my thoughts are sketched out in a draft copy, this policy is lifted, and I spend an afternoon exploring the reviews of others (where available). This act of research never sways or shapes my opinion. But, it does give me insight into how the film is viewed from multiple perspectives.
Occasionally this research is revelatory, confusing or fascinating as my view collides with others. And, sometimes, as with Kerry Mondragon’s feature-length debut, Tyger, Tyger, I wonder if my fellow reviewers all sat through the same film as me or whether I received a slightly different version. Movies that divide opinion like this are genuinely fascinating. The differing viewpoints of critics only highlighting the creative diversity at the heart of the director’s vision. But, of course, this division among critics will also lead to division among audiences. For me, Mondragon’s Tyger Tyger is a daring, avant-garde exploration of addiction, inequality and isolation. One that is compelling yet frustrating as the final credits roll.
A pandemic sits at the heart of Mondragon’s vision as his film opens. It is within this dystopian landscape that we meet Blake (Sam Quartin). Her life spent on the edge of society as she robs local pharmacies. Her mission, to deliver life-saving medication to the people suffering on the fringes of a society where wealth and privilege dictate health and life expectancy. However, during one of her armed robberies, Blake meets Luke (Dylan Sprouse), an addict and dealer who ignites a sense of curiosity in Blake and her mute anarchist partner in crime, Bobby (Nekhebet Kum Juch). And after kidnapping Luke, all three embark on a road trip that leads them to an underground world of survival on the periphery of a broken society.
Mondragon’s strange brew of road trip, pandemic and addiction drama has no intention of playing by the rules. It’s narrative challenging, loose, and at times incomprehensible. Therefore, for many Tyger, Tyger is bound to leave them cold, confused and frustrated as they bounce from character to character with little structure to guide the way. However, look deeper and Tyger, Tyger is layered with a range of urgent social themes, wrapped in a vivid dream of no escape. So let me start by exploring the pandemic themes held within Mondragon’s movie.
Filmed before COVID 19 took hold, it would be easy to label Mondragon’s film as a new age pandemic thriller. However, this distracts from several of the deeper messages sitting under its surface. Firstly, Mondragon’s view of ‘pandemic’ is rooted in a dissection of capitalism and the social inequality it can create. Here, drug addiction, HIV and poverty are all pandemics of modern society. However, due to the people affected, they are ignored, sidelined and never seen as a global pandemic. Those suffering are both ostracised and discarded unless they carry wealth, power or privilege. The medicine and support they need, controlled and dictated by the wealthy, as social status dictates an individuals’ ability to live a full life.
Let’s think about this further. The World Health Organisation estimates that at least 245,000 deaths result from drugs each year. While at the same time, 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2020. And yet, neither drug addiction nor HIV/AIDS have ever been classed as a global pandemic. Meanwhile, inequality in access to healthcare continues to rise, and even in countries of privilege, healthcare has become a lottery for those at the bottom of the social ladder. These underlying themes held within Tyger, Tyger are urgent, important and timely. But, they are also all too often sidelined by a story that never quite finds its feet in the hands of a set of characters who lack depth.
Meanwhile, Mondragon’s fever dream of striking imagery and sound is assured, yet all too often incomplete. His richly textured community sitting on the outskirts of society, almost carnival-like in construct. A rich dystopian, artistic and queer world of creativity and belonging that also carries a far darker, dangerous side. This world needed more time to grow on screen, its characters more focus and depth. But, despite this, his world lingers in the memory long after the credits have rolled.
So, how do we draw together these positives and negatives in summarising Mondragon’s film? Mondragon’s bold, creative and dreamlike film houses several urgent themes while at the same time surrounding this with artistry that lingers long after viewing. Meanwhile, Quartin and Sprouse hold the viewer’s attention despite the slow pace, their scenes together natural and improvised in nature. Their emotional connection intense yet distant as addiction, belonging and fear surround their every move.
However, the meandering story and the absence of clear character focus and depth causes a significant problem. A problem that will sadly lead many to disembark from Mondragon’s journey before its completion. As a result, the sheer creative talent sitting behind Tyger, Tyger may also prove its downfall with mainstream film audiences. And this is disappointing as with a bit more structure among an ocean of creativity and ideas Tyger, Tyger could have achieved so much more. But, that does not mean Mondragon’s film is poor or disappointing. In fact, as a work of experimental arthouse cinema, it’s full of surprises. And when coupled with a narrative embedded in the idea of inequality as a global pandemic Tyger, Tyger is truly fascinating. But, as to whether it can find a wider audience, the jury is out.