Mysterious Skin (2005, dir: Gregg Araki) is a deeply disturbing film. It is well made and well acted, with a beautiful soundtrack by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie (of Cocteau Twins fame). None of that makes its subject matter any easier to deal with, or the movie overall any more enjoyable when you walk away from the cinema like someone emerging from a car wreck.
Based on the novel of the same name by Scott Heim the story focuses on the lives of two boys, Neil (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), who are linked by something horrific that happened to them when they were eight years old. What is even more horrific is that one of them cannot remember what happened, and it has left him an empty shell grasping for meaning in the clueless dark. The other remembers it very well. Too well. It has defined his life in ways all-encompassing and wholly destructive.
Brian searches for answers to his blackouts and nosebleeds through finding out about alien abductions and vile experiments onboard UFOs. Neil finds fulfilment through getting paid for hot gay sex and listening to 80s goth music.
As an aside, it is one of the most sympathetic and least cringeworthy portrayals of goth teenagers I’ve seen in many a while. You can extrapolate as to what the film is saying about goths and their origins, but as 80s goth teenagers go, Wendy, Neil and their friend Eric (Jeff Licon) looked credible and felt like real people that I didn’t want to smack in the face.
Neil’s best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg, in a small but excellent role) knows enough about Neil to love him, but too much to be blind to the boy’s lost soul.
I’m not referring to an ability to dance or keep rhythm. Neil seems to be searching for either love or destruction at the hands of the men who pay to play with him, because though his many statements to the contrary imply the opposite, he is a deeply disturbed individual because of what happened to him ten years ago.
Joseph Gordon Levitt is superb as Neil. It’s not overstating it to say that he is a revelation in the role. Considering his idiotic work on sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, it’s astounding. He gets the dialogue right, the physicality of his character perfect, and most of all, the facial expressions which say what it would take a thousand pages to say in one moment, in one look.
Brady Corbet has the less showy role as the painfully shy and perpetually confused Brian. His glasses are massive and dominate his face, and not knowing what happened a decade ago dominates his existence so completely that watching him stumble towards Neil and the truth is scary and heartbreaking.
Brian hears of alien abductions and believes himself to be a victim of them. He gets excited when he sees a girl on telly who lives close by in Kansas who seems to have experienced something intensely similar to himself. He and Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajkub) seem linked by this, and he thinks she is bringing him closer to the truth.
The truth is for the viewer to find out. Though I don’t want to give too much away to any potential viewer, it would be remiss of me to neglect to mention that paedophilia plays a big part in the story. A big, bloody, painful slab of the story.
Of all the taboos, though I am aware there are always people trying to invent new ones at any given moment out of boredom or perversity, it is still the one that is likely to disturb the greatest amount of people. It is a subject I have great difficulty hearing about or watching a film about. Extreme discomfort would be the phrase I’m looking for.
So my motivation in going to see the film was the tremendous reviews the film garnered here and overseas, more so than any desire to see anything about this kind of stuff which makes me physically ill to contemplate.
Though Araki is known for such cinematic masterpieces as The Doom Generation and his arse-bandit version of Thelma and Louise: The Living End (in other words, renowned for making shallow, exploitative and transgressive-for-the-sake-of-being-transgressive movies), here he treats the material with incredible tenderness and maturity.
A surprising amount of complexity and maturity. Almost more complexity, maturity and sensitivity than such material should warrant, one could say.
Speaking as someone who has (probably) fathered a few children around the world, the sexual abuse of children makes most of us want to join the nearest angry mob and torch the house of the scum responsible with them in it.
In movies generally the portrayal of characters who are the perpetrators of such crimes is as monstrous, sneering, inhuman creatures. It makes it cut and dry. For the people making it and financing it, for the audience. It’s more comfortable that way for all concerned.
We know what to feel and when to feel it: horror when the monster does what it does, righteous anger when the survivor confronts the attacker and cathartic joy when the monster is brought to justice or killed, which amount to the same thing.
There is no such trajectory in Mysterious Skin. There is a question, and it gets answered, but there is no resolution, no way of erasing the last ten years of our main characters lives or the events that brought them there. There is no catharsis at the end for us because life doesn’t work like that, on or off the screen. None of this makes the finale any less powerful or devastating.
The “monster” is portrayed as anything but a monster. We know him only as “Coach” (Bill Sage, effectively ending his acting career), and though his crimes mean he deserves to be tortured to death over a couple of years, he is represented as a tall, handsome, personification of love and desire. The righteous indignation and fury we might feel comes only from us; the film doesn’t tell us how we’re supposed to feel about him. The film maker assumes we’ll fill in the blanks without burning down the cinema in a fit of rage.
The beautiful way in which the movie is put together, the languid manner in which it all plays out, the melancholy themes of lost hope and lost youth; all these aspects serve only to increase the ambiguity, the discomfort, the confusing nature of how to feel about what goes on, at least for this member of the audience. I know the film is a success by any measure of Araki’s, or on many critical levels, but I still can’t recommend the film to another living soul.
I find myself so deeply horrified by much of what is said and what is represented in the film that I know, despite the fact that I believe it to be a good film, I may have been better off never having seen it.
Though never sexually graphic or gratuitous (though there is a violent rape scene), much of what occurs, part of me wants to say, should never, ever be spoken of or represented outside of a courtroom. There are images suggestive of what characters are really talking about or thinking of that make me sick just typing about them. And I say that as someone who has happily (well, maybe not that happily) sat through the works of Takashi Miike, Dario Argento, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson.
Gregg Araki clearly had a deep affinity and love for the story. It comes through in every painstaking shot and every line of dialogue uttered. He worked with the book’s author to adapt the screenplay properly. Since the story represents an artistic rendering of the author’s life, I would imagine he’d be pretty happy with the end result.
Let your own threshold for these ideas and your own comfort level with the perversity of human sexuality, both that of children and adults, be your guide. All I can tell you is that it is a beautifully well-made film crafted from such poisonous materials that it left me guttered and gutted. Which is what good films are supposed to do. I guess.
Sandro – two scores: 8 times a violent sadist shouldn’t be beating their victim with a bottle of Johnson and Johnson shampoo (no more tears) out of 10 for people who can stomach such subject matter, or 0 out of 10 for people who are too overwhelmed by revulsion at the subject matter to be objective about it.
– “This is going to be the safest sex you’ve ever had” – (sure it is) Zeke, Mysterious Skin.