2005Director: Gregg Araki
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Bill Sage
’ve always loved Gregg Araki, and I’m not afraid to say it. When his Doom Generation followed Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers in 1995, it was heckled by critics as being derivative, instead of the on-the-nose and far more artful improvement on the theme it so obviously was. It was sex and violence and rude language taken to an extreme I had never seen before, a filthy overdose of irony and pop-culture all but burying a bitter, razor-sharp commentary on the American media. Accused by many of being an immature shock-monger, it’s easy to see how his message, whatever you interpret it to be, can get lost among all the cartoon violence, crude humor, stylized sexual deviance and plastic, strip-mall hopelessness. But in nearly all of his films, there is always at least one scene that resonates strangely and powerfully with you, whether you want to admit it or not. Therefore, it was easy to see something truly amazing on Araki’s horizon once he finally stumbled upon just the right material to help him strike a balance. Mysterious Skin is that film.
Painstakingly adapted from the Scott Heim novel of the same name, Mysterious Skin is a tale of two boys from rural Kansas and the terrible reality that binds them together. One of which, Brian (Brady Corbet), has blotted out the incidents entirely, mistaking his “missing time”, chronic nosebleeds and bedwetting for alien abduction. The other, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), remembers all too well, recalling the time with a bereft fondness that colors his day to day existence while he turns playground tricks as a gay teenage hustler. The incident in question was the molestation perpetrated on them by their little league coach (Bill Sage) when both boys were eight.
"I'll take care of you, Ali-with-an-'i'...”
Solitary Brian launches a quest for the truth, seeking answers from dubious newsmagazine shows about alien abduction, the friendship of lonely fellow abductee Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) in a nearby town and his own obsessively recorded dream fragments. As he comes closer to the truth, he becomes convinced that a barely remembered face from his past, which turns out to be Neil, may hold the key to greater knowledge. Embarking on his own quest, and temporarily hindering Brian’s, Neil strikes out for New York City, leaving behind friends/unrequited lovers Wendy and Eric (Michelle Trachtenberg and Jeff Licon) in search of chicken-hawks with deeper pockets. When the two finally meet, on Christmas Eve, no less, both learn just how far away from reality two kids will go to protect themselves from it.
Definitely not the feel-good hit of the summer, Mysterious Skin is nonetheless one of the most important and compelling emotional journeys this reviewer has had the good fortune (yes, I said good fortune, bear with me) to embark on in years. Or possibly ever. Hard to imagine how such devastating and bleak material could do anything other than leave you feeling depressed and befouled (and make no mistake, it does exactly that several times). Yet somehow Araki manages to infuse his volatile choice of subject matter with subtle touches of humor and a surprising but steady undercurrent of hope without ever lessening the film’s emotional hammer-blows. Part of the alchemy at work here is surely due to Araki’s decision to forego the gritty, ugly cinéma-vérité style the appalling subject matter practically demands. Instead, cinematographer Steve Gainer has infused Mysterious Skin with so much lush, heartbreakingly evocative beauty that it’s like biting into a ripe, juicy, perfectly polished apple and finding it riddled with worms, razor blades and poison. I don’t know how they managed to keep such beauty from upstaging or sugar-coating the material, or worse, almost satirizing scenes that literally made the audience gasp with repulsion and outrage, but damned if it doesn’t make it all even more heartrending and unspeakable. It’s terrible magic and it works. We watch the seasons change, each unveiling their most delightful charms, as adorable children mature into attractive adolescents, and somehow growing up never looked more sinister or tragic.
"It's probably, like, my favorite animal..."
Perhaps the only thing more accomplished than the film’s look and it’s pitch-perfect direction is the acting. I hardly know where to begin, and wish I could rave for pages and pages about absolutely everyone’s four star turn individually. Instead I’ll reign it in a little and simply say yes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt really is every bit as amazing as everyone’s saying he is. He couldn’t be further from his Third Rock from the Sun days and should forever be remembered for making one of the bravest and most upsetting transitions from cutesy, precocious child actor ever. But the name you won’t be hearing enough is Brady Corbet. Hard to believe Brady, playing 18 year old Brian, was only 15 at the time of filming. His emotional range is so complex, and his handling of the material so mature it almost makes you worry for whatever innocence kids are supposed to still have at that age. Speaking of which…
This is the first time in years that I’ve actually felt changed by a film. Perhaps I held on too long to my youthful enthusiasm as I think back to a night in my twenties when some overblown intellectual snob shamed me for saying: “this film/book/album changed my life”. I honestly don’t remember what I was so excited about, I only remember his derisive sneer and his pointer finger leveled at me like the bony digit of the grim reaper killing my enthusiasm with a single arch comment. I’ve been unable to make that particular declaration about anything since, but now? Screw that jackass! Mysterious Skin changed my life. There I sat in the theater, fighting to suppress an actual howl of anguish, sobbing quietly and uncontrollably while the credits rolled, hoping I could hold it together long enough for my boyfriend to get back from the lobby with a handful of napkins for my runny nose. In recent years I’ve seen movies that depressed me, shocked me, made me laugh and hugely disappointed me, but nothing, absolutely nothing has moved me this much in a long time. It’s a brave, powerful, profoundly upsetting movie, and all involved should be honored for taking some bold choices and making them soar. I’ve always been a fan of Gregg Araki, but Mysterious Skin has put him on my top 10 directors list.
By: Jen Cameron
Published on: 2005-07-13