Mysterious Skin

May, 2005, Drama

Directed by:Gregg Araki

Starring:Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, Richard Riehle, and Mary Lynn Rajskub

Ten years ago, a young author from Hutchinson Kansas published his first novel, set in his hometown. Scott Heim's devastating examination of the long-term impact of child sexual molestation provoked critical acclaim but little else--until it found its way into the hands of independent filmmaker Gregg Araki, who developed a script with the novelist and then crafted this blunt/delicate, savage/tender, explicit/restrained movie, the most unsettling and powerful independent film since Elephant two years ago. If ever an American movie served a moral purpose, this one does. 

Araki has long been the Peck's Bad-Boy of America cinema, turning out a small but consistent body of work that has intrigued some while offending many others. With his penchant for examining repulsive behavior without apparent regard for its implicit rejection of community values, he's secured his reputation as an artist perhaps a bit too much in love with his own pervasive alienation. That cinematic style remains, but here it serves as the perfect, (if horrific can ever be said to be perfect) approach to conveying the dehumanizing impact of a Robert Redford-handsome baseball coach on a pair of young, impressionable boys. 

Brian and Neil are 8-year olds in the summer of 1981, the former a geek-in-progress, the latter a doe-eyed voyeur whose furtive observations of his slatternly mother's lovemaking have provided more sexual knowledge than his years can properly handle. His seduction is frighteningly tender and deeply disturbing, but how does it relate, (if at all) to teammate Brian's sudden nosebleeds and his conviction that a blackout he's endured indicates he's been the victim of an alien abduction?

The director teases out the answers to this mystery over the next decade, following Neil's catatonic journey into male hustling, first servicing furtive traveling salesmen in his Betty Crocker-like hometown and then the habitués of New York's gay bars in the burgeoning AIDS era. Brian doesn't wander; he stays much too close to home, struggles through high school, and remains so burdened with innate fear of his own body that he becomes an asexual cipher, nearly invisible to everyone except his stridently controlling mother. While a student at the local community college, Brian's recurring nightmares begin to hint at another participant in the alien abduction that has become increasingly real to him. He seeks out like-minded believers in the paranormal who suggest that his dreams should be mined for clues to what he experienced; in doing so he becomes acquainted with Neil's mother and best friend Charlie, setting in motion a reunion of two hopelessly damaged young men over a Christmas holiday visit which brings Neil back to Hutchinson and an unwelcome but illuminating confrontation with the past.

Araki carefully deposits hints and clues about his characters with sophistication at complete odds with the apparently offhand style he employs to tell this intricate story. Like the more widely known Gus Van Zant, Araki has the uncanny directorial ability to fashion troubling complexity out of the apparently mundane. His minor characters, (parents, fellow students) speak like actors in a high school drama production or pitchmen in 1950's television commercials, their sing-song cadences suggesting a surreal detachment from the events in which they're participating. The director's camera could be an old box Kodak for the simplicity of his cinematography; it simply records--head on--what passes before it, a casual visual focus juxtaposed with the boys' frenzied efforts to square their actions and self-perceived motivations. It's impossible not to agonize over Neil's downward trajectory into debasement because he's so unaware of it, or not lament Brian's increasingly bizarre attachment to fantasies of alien abduction and farm animal desecration that threaten his hold on reality. These two are non-combatant members of the walking wounded, one unaware of the source of his pain, the other all to conscious of the fact that he's been a willing participant in something that gave meaning and purpose to his life before it gave him any pleasure. 

As Neil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (a 24 year old actor who has been working in television and movies aimed at the youth market for over a decade) manages to look and act the part of a young punk so effortlessly that his bewilderment at his own urges sustains audience interest despite the degradation he embraces so repeatedly. Wearing his narcarissim as nonchantly as his low-cut denims, he's a victim in the making, all the more vulnerable because of his conviction that he's always in control. As Brian, 17-year-old actor Brady Corbet has the difficult job of making a deliberately colorless adolescent interesting, which he manages by allowing the pressures of his character's increasing mental torment to force him into confrontation with those who can help explain the source of his symptoms. When his demand to "tell me everything" is finally met, the director and actor have the good sense to respond with quiet understatement and the camera's polite withdrawal, allowing the audience to put its own sad postscript on this hapless pair.

The classical definition of tragedy requires nobility with a fatal flaw, but do contemporary minds find a more credible meaning of that term in the perversion of innocence? 

What's the proper response to Mysterious Skin? There but for the Grace of God…  

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A note to Pope Benedict XVI; instead of allowing Cardinal Bernard Law to remain in Rome as an official of the Vatican, you should remand him to the nearest theater and require him to view Mysterious Skin over and over until he finally understands both the enormity of his crime in hiding the clerical sexual abuse of children in Boston and the incalculable damage it did. Then as Pontiff, charge Law with the responsibility of conveying Araki's message to those other prelates of the Church in such dire need of its lacerating clarity.       

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