Because Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin has such a small release, I thought it might be a nice movie to review. Also, the film happens to be darn intriguing. Way more interesting than the overly self-aware Me and You and Everyone We Know, which seems to be getting more press. As I’ve mentioned before, I like messy movies—films that don’t try to answer every question and that leave gaps from which art can emerge. This movie, written and directed by Araki, sure fits the bill.
Unfamiliar with the director’s work, I knew only that the movie is rated NC-17 and examines childhood sexual abuse. Loosely constructed, the main plot revolves around two teenage boys in small town America, connected only by their mutual abuse by the town baseball coach.
Brian (Brady Corbet) does not remember the abuse but knows something unusual causes him to black out and suffer spontaneous nosebleeds in times of stress—he decides aliens must have kidnapped him. As his memory gradually returns, Brian realizes that another little boy was present during the incident and thus initiates a search for Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to learn the truth about his past.
As Neil, Gordon-Levitt, that kid from Third Rock From the Sun, delivers a powerful performance that will erase all memory of his geeky character from the sitcom. Portraying a gay prostitute, Gordon-Levitt’s characterization is sharply defined, erotically charged, and deeply disturbing. As Neil’s best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) notes, Neil has an empty hole where his heart should be.
Slowly paced and featuring a stark lack of action (not necessarily a pejorative comment), the film personifies the boredom of small time life. Yet even when Neil moves to New York, the film fails to take off, in large part because Neil changes little throughout the movie. Sure, he finds that prostitution is more dangerous in the big city, yet he continues to sell himself (a brief stint at a sandwich shop notwithstanding). Neil reacts more than he proacts; he may have moved from a small town to a large city, but he remains the same cipher, upon whom others impose their own interpretation of who he is.
Another contributing factor to the slow pace and lack of action in the film derives from the fact that Brian does not discover his connection to Neil until half way through the movie. At this point, Neil has already moved to New York. So does Brian catch a bus and rush to New York to meet the boy that may have all the answers? Nope. He waits several months until Neil returns home for Christmas. Similarly, Araki takes his time in telling his story, slowly drawing the audience into the small town (and small world view) of the film’s characters.
Araki fails to develop his secondary characters. Consider Neil’s friend Wendy. I mean, who is she? What does she gain from her friendship with Neil? Heck, what are her career aspirations? But Wendy appears only in connection to her relationship with Neil.
Neil describes the moment he and Wendy became united for life, but honestly, the scene makes little sense. Neil tortures a mentally impaired child while Wendy silently witnesses—this is the scene that encourages her to bond with Neil for all time? But Araki takes little time to delve into Wendy’s motivations or reactions: seemingly, her primary function within the film is to utter the plaintive plea to Neil, “you’ll be careful, right?” Not that Neil ever changes because of her concern.
Like Wendy, other secondary characters in the movie receive short shrift throughout the film. For instance, the other woman in Neil’s life, his mother (an underused but lovely Elisabeth Shue), echoes Wendy in her empty and repetitious dialogue. Yet her mantra focuses on her ownership of Neil, “you’re mine and I love you.” This is disturbing in a film in which men repeatedly pay Neil to possess his body—everyone seems to want to control him, while he remains decidedly out of control.
The women surrounding Neil desperately offer their love and understanding, yet he remains emotionally distant and persists in his destructive lifestyle. Is his mere existence enough for these women who apparently need little by way of personal connection, intimacy, or empathy? But the female characters are not the focus of the film; they merely to tell us more about the male characters around whom the story revolves.
Somewhat less wasted is secondary character Eric (Jeffrey Licon), who portrays the faithful friend (first to Neil, and then to Brian). To be honest, he’s the most interesting of the lot: honest about his desire for Neil, sympathetic in his knowledge that Neil will never return the feelings, and compassionate towards incredibly awkward Brian. Eric evidences hints of a three dimensional nature, yet the script merely glances as him, using him as a tool to bring Brian and Neil together.
Their eventual reunion does not disappoint. Neil describes in frightening detail the night he helped the coach molest Brian. Araki shows tremendous self-control and restraint in his filming of this scene, avoiding the pitfalls of hysteria or easy compassion. Rather, Neil reveals himself to be his most robotic as he relates his most cruel action—one encouraged by an adult who stole from Neil all his humanity.
Araki films the movie from a detached perspective: we observe the characters but are never invited to enter the world from their point of view. This can be a bit awkward, as it reinforces the coldness of the experience (and almost makes us complicit in the objectification suffered by the abused boys).
Araki doesn’t shy away from the horror under the surface: it is palpable while it lurks and potent when exposed in the final scene. Araki avoids a pat or clichéd ending, but this means the audience leaves the cinema carrying the burden of the boys’ suffering: Neil’s lack of soul and Brian’s complete anguish. Powerful stuff, and brave filmmaking.