out of Five
Running time: 106
Compelling, impressively acted film that is by turns moving and horrifying – one of the year’s most controversial films.
Director Gregg Araki’s most accessible film to date is, ironically, also his most controversial. His previous films, such as The Doom Generation and Nowhere, were more concerned with shock value and surrealism than with plot and character and ended up sketchy and confusing as a result.
With Mysterious Skin, however, the emphasis is firmly on character, which makes the shocking elements all the more powerful when they finally appear.
Based on the novel by Scott Heim (who co-wrote the screenplay), Mysterious Skin centres on two teenaged boys whose lives are haunted by a shared incident in their past. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Neil McCormick, a good-looking gay hustler who is obsessed with the sexual relationship he had with his coach (Bill Sage, looking disturbingly like a young Robert Redford) when he was eight years old.
Meanwhile, Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) believes he was abducted by aliens as a boy, because of the time he woke up in his cellar with a nosebleed, unable to recall the last eight hours of his life. Desperate to discover what happened to him, Brian’s search eventually leads him to Neil’s door…
That the film works as well as it does is entirely down to the performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet. Gordon-Levitt (best known for his work on Third Rock From The Sun) is excellent, managing to retain the sympathy of the audience, despite the fact that even his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes him as having “a bottomless black hole where his heart should be”. Corbet is equally good, despite having the less showy role – it’s hard to believe he’s the same actor who was so unremittingly dreadful in Thunderbirds.
In addition to the two leads there’s great support from Michelle
Trachtenberg (whose recent turn in Six Feet Under proves that she has a great career ahead of her), Mary Lynn Rajskub (as a lonely woman who also claims to have been abducted by aliens) and Elisabeth Shue as Neil’s single mother. Araki also gets astonishing performances from George Webster and Chase Ellison, the two child actors who play Brian and Neil as young boys – one hopes their scenes were filmed without them having too much knowledge of the script.
The Difficult Scenes
It should probably be said that Mysterious Skin is not for the squeamish, as it contains some truly shocking scenes. These include: a brutal, terrifying rape scene; a scene involving fireworks that ought to carry a “Kids, don’t try this at home” warning (and just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it does); and the thoroughly disturbing revelations towards the end – you’ll never be able to hear the words “five dollar game” again without wincing.
To be fair, the script, which retains a fair amount of the novel’s narration by the two boys, also has a lot of humour - for example, after the aforementioned fireworks scene, Neil’s voiceover deadpans, “Wendy never really looked at me the same after that”. In fact, Neil gets several lines that are pricelessly bitchy, such as (of his male clients), “I hate it when they look like Tarzan and sound like Jane”.
To sum up, Mysterious Skin is a gripping, moving film that definitely isn’t for everyone (woe betide anyone who goes to see it just because “Dawn from Buffy” is in it), but is unquestionably worth seeing for its performances and its uncompromising direction. Highly recommended.