The Film: Mysterious Skin (2005)
The Principles: Gregg Araki (writer/director), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Chase Ellison, George Webster, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg
The Premise: Neil McCormick is a hustler doling out sexual favors for older men around his small town in Kansas. Brian Lackey is an awkward loner who spends most of his time in his room, convinced he was abducted by aliens. Both of these young men’s paths must cross in order for them to come to terms with the tragic summer that has haunted them since they were eight years old.
Is it good? Basing a film on pedophilia and its devastating consequences strikes a chord of terror that no horror film could ever dream of hitting. The innocence of childhood is something with which we can all identify, something over which we wax nostalgic as we try to combat the cynicism that often accompanies our “real world” experience as adults. To see that innocence violently ripped away, leaving scars that will never fully heal is both frightening and heartbreaking. Mysterious Skin is a great film, but make no mistake, this is not an easy one to watch. While Araki has tread the ground of bitter youth in the past, absent here is the stylized approach that kept viewers at a safe distance in films like The Doom Generation. Mysterious Skin runs the gamut from slightly unnerving to downright harrowing in a no-frills, substance-over-style fashion as we see how the deep, long-ranging effects of child abuse can channel themselves in strikingly different ways.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is nothing short of incredible here. After being seduced and routinely abused by his little league coach over the course of a summer, Neil McCormick (Levitt) has grown up to be a prostitute with a predilection for hustling older men, each encounter simultaneously acting as an agitator of and relief from the anguish the young man is trying so hard to bury. Levitt portrays a care-free, pseudo-rebel persona to those around him, but as he makes the move from meeting men at the park in small-town Kansas to traversing the streets of early 90’s New York City, Neil’s eyes begin to morph from a constantly detached gaze to the look of a man desperate to escape the personal hell to which he’s been condemned since that fateful summer.
Concurrently, Brian (Corbet), one of Neil’s old little league teammates, is dealing with his own childhood trauma. When he was eight years old, Brian awoke in his parents’ basement with a bloody nose and no recollection of what had transpired in the preceding five hours. While Neil has spent his adolescence grappling with the horrors inflicted upon him, Brian has spent his attempting to piece together what happened that one summer night. His frequent nightmares and a budding friendship with a woman who claims to have been taken by a UFO have led him to conclude that he was abducted and probed by aliens. It isn’t until he sees Neil in an old little league team photo that something clicks in Brian’s head; this other boy is the key to finding out what happened to him.
Focusing on such intense and personal struggles of two young men doesn’t really leave a lot for the supporting cast to chew on. This is a shame when you’re employing talents like Elisabeth Shue (performing the duties of the requisite clueless mother who is too concerned with the revolving door of men in her life to notice how damaged Neil truly is), 24’s Mary Lynn Rajskub (Brian’s nutjob alien abductee friend), and Michelle Trachtenberg (Neil’s best friend and potential soul mate, “if [he] hadn’t been queer”). But this is a film about its two leads, both of whom knock their respective performances out of the park, so undercooked side characters can be forgiven.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what, if anything, Araki is trying to say with Mysterious Skin; there’s certainly no agenda being pushed here. At the end of the film, when all of the terrible facts have come to light, Neil and Brian are still left in a place of uncertainty. Have Neil’s experiences in NYC and his subsequent tell-all with Brian left him in a better place? Is Brian, now aware of what happened all those years ago, a better person for it? We don’t know, but if unleashing such an intense, unflinching look at the havoc that child abuse can wreak will allow people to gain more appreciation for the gravity of these actions, as well as the unimaginably difficult lifelong struggles that these victims must face, well I suppose that is reason enough for the film to exist.
Is it worth a look? It isn’t for everyone. As I said, this is a tough film to watch; there are scenes of molestation and rape that, while not explicitly graphic, are intensely suggestive and would definitely be considered triggers. If you can endure watching the pain these two characters must suffer, it is absolutely worth watching this powerful and realistic depiction of two young men struggling to find peace in the face of unimaginable trauma.
Random anecdotes: Mysterious Skin is adapted from the book of the same name written by Scott Heim.
The house used for the Halloween scene was also used as Vivica A. Fox’s house in Kill Bill: Vol. 1.
Emile Hirsch auditioned for the role of Neil before JGL landed the role.
Cinematic soulmates: Requiem for a Dream, A Single Man