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Mysterious Skin (2004) August 27, 2009

Posted by gproject in : Recently Viewed , trackback

Directed by: Gregg Araki

Taking a role only available to independent films, Mysterious Skin pushes the appropriateness of its narrative to near breaking point, dealing in so many awkward issues and difficult themes that it becomes a struggle just to watch, not least review.  Still, with an affective atmospheric approach, and fantastic casting, the film offers you an opportunity to just grit your teeth and dive on in.

Set in the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas, quiet local boy Brian Lackey has grown up troubled, after losing five hours in his youth to what he believes was an alien abduction.  Meanwhile, similarly troubled but infinitely more confident Neil McCormick has discovered his sexuality at an early age after falling for his little league baseball coach.  As both boys reach their late teens, each find themselves searching for answers.  Neil, fed up with prostituting himself out to the local crowd, goes looking for meaning in New York City; while Brian’s search leads him to find Neil, and the buried truth about his childhood.

If the dangerous set-up to David Slade’s dark role-reversal picture Hard Candy [review] had you checking your moral barometer, then expect this film to raise your mercury levels to new heights.  It’s an extremely uncomfortable watch, brought on by a self-imposed obligation to be raw, real, and sometimes downright explicit.  This heavy-impact story style, along with its sombre themes and impulsive characterisation, makes the film difficult to appreciate in any traditional sense.  But just because it reaches into dark places does not mean we have the right to dismiss it.  Maybe more so than usual, it allows you to question what you’ve seen, and exactly how it made you feel.

Reactionary, then, are the first opinions a viewer has on finishing the film.  It’s certainly the case that immediacy is not it’s strong point, and it is unlikely that the slow-burning plot does anything to help this.  Only on reflection can one come to terms with how they really feel about Mysterious Skin - not that the elapsed time will necessarily change your overall opinion, but because it’s hard to see the film for what it is, as you emerge gasping for air after 99 minutes in it dank, dark underworld.  Even the lighter scenes are tainted by an atmosphere that coats the whole film in a semi-transparent oily awkwardness; a constantly uncomfortable mood in a purposefully uncomfortable story.

Luckily, the cast really help elevate this film above its potential classification as a tawdry, low-rent shocker.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt stands out a mile as the disturbed and emotionally broken Neil, his quiet but confident temperament hiding a wealth of pain displayed through self-destructive actions.  Both here and in Rian Johnson’s Brick [review], Gordon-Levitt proves himself to be one of the finest young actors working today.  Meanwhile, Brady Corbet plays the more reserved lead, his half of the story a less explicit parallel to Neil’s.  He too does solid work, playing the slightly bumbling teen with nervous energy that shows most prominently in his scenes with Mary Lynn Rajskub.  There are also appearances by Elizabeth Shue as Neil’s Mother, Chris Mulkey as Brian’s father, and a difficult but well handled role for Bill Sage as the little league baseball coach of the characters’ youth.

While based on a novel by Scott Heim, the film seems to have lost little of the shock factor in its adaptation by director Gregg Araki.  There are scenes that will disturb and discomfort, although this has become part of Araki’s M.O. if his previous features The Doom Generation and Nowhere are anything to go by.  It takes the themes that have more quietly disconcerted in films like Running Scared [review] and Todd Solondz’s Happiness, but flips the focus back on the children instead of the more obvious plight of the adults.  The narrative plays nicely with a ‘two sides of the coin’ structure, displaying extreme reactions to the horrors of child abuse through characters who are defined, knowingly or unknowingly, by their early life.  As a result of the consistent subject matter, however, the film falls foul of a certain obviousness.  You’ll probably know exactly where the story is going after a few short minutes, especially in the case of Brian and his blackouts.

For a movie as thematically difficult as Mysterious Skin, the value is not necessarily in what you see, but how you feel seeing it.  Here, Araki has made a solid low budget feature (reportedly edited on a consumer-level Apple Mac) that wraps its depressed mood around you with surprising effectiveness.  But while there are moments that shine, there are others - like the decidedly empty ending - that turn the movie into a rather hollow experience.  It’s an interesting watch, and a challenging one at that, but like the implications of its title it’s also ponderous, carnal, and difficult to fully interpret.

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