Ford On Film

Chronicles of a silver screen addict

Modern Masterpieces #3: Mysterious Skin

Director Gregg Araki’s 2005 magnum opus Mysterious Skin is, at least initially, a tough film to like. Any film that focus on two extremely damaged individuals is going to be a difficult watching experience, and Mysterious Skin is no exception.

Neil, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a breakthrough performance, is an intense street hustler still consumed by the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his peewee baseball coach. Brian, portrayed by indie stalwart Brady Corbet (Funny Games US, Simon Killer), is a disturbed, reclusive college student trying to uncover the truth behind the ‘alien abduction’ that caused him to lose 5 hours of his life when he was 8 years old. The two teenagers couldn’t be more different, but Araki sets them off on paths that will eventually collide in devastating fashion.

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The first half of Mysterious Skin is certainly the strongest, despite its uncomfortable subject matter. In the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, Gregg Araki named David Lynch’s underrated 1992 TV prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as one of his ten favourite films, and it shows; Lynch’s fingerprints can be felt all over the first 45 minutes of Mysterious Skin and it’s upsetting look at the nightmares that take place behind closed doors.

From the start, Neil and Brian share the narration as we are introduced to both boys aged 8. Chase Ellison, in an outstanding child performance, portrays Neil as a sexually curious, often-neglected boy, looking for attention he rarely gets from his absent mother (Neil’s story begins with him watching Mum Elizabeth Shue have an intimate encounter on his swing set). In the film’s boldest move, Neil’s first encounter with Coach (a supremely creepy performance from Bill Sage) is portrayed as some kind of awakening, Coach the saviour Neil so desperately needs; in the narration, teenage Neil claims he and Coach were in love and he always had fun in Coach’s house, despite the horrible acts that took place. Mysterious Skin is hugely interesting as a look at the effects and repercussions of child abuse, portraying the event through the deep levels of denial and twisted logic of a victim.

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8 year old Brian (George Webster) isn’t much better off. After blacking out for five hours and waking up with a bloody nose in the crawl space, Brian becomes convinced he’s been abducted by aliens, to the worry of his parents. Mysterious Skin’s most explicit creeps and jumps come from repeated dream sequences as Brian imagines the clinical blue surroundings and eerie features of his extra-terrestrial kidnappers. Brian’s story is not as immediately memorable and shocking as Neil’s, but the cinematography of Steve Gainer and some beautifully haunting shots, like Brian and his family seeing a UFO rise up over their house, make it just as fascinating.

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Both boys continue to stray onto different paths as they grow older. Neil, now a street hustler whose life revolves around seedy sexual encounters in the barren local park, is barely human; a blank vessel of rage and sexual confusion. In an enlightening conversation between best friends Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Eric (Jeffrey Lichon), Wendy warns Eric that “Where normal people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole. And if you don’t watch out, you can fall in and get lost forever”. It’s a testament to the astonishing performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt that we are still drawn to Neil, despite how emotionally distant he is. Still best known as the kid from 3rd Rock From The Sun at the time, this was the film that cemented Gordon-Levitt as a talent to watch. With a bitter scowl or a dead-eyed stare, he expresses everything you need to know about Neil McCormick. And when he cries? It’s devastating.

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If Neil is a teenager without emotions, Brian is a boy with too many to handle. Talking in a quiet, stuttering drawl, spending most of his time researching the paranormal, Brian is an easier character to like than Neil, if no less sympathetic. Neil is a character who knows the path he is on, someone in control (if not for much longer). Brian is directionless, constantly searching for answers to an impossible question. Even when he discovers fellow ‘abductee’ Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), he finds nothing but pain and confusion; Avalyn quickly falls in love with Brian and triggers a frightening flashback, sending him running back to his childhood home. It’s only when he discovers a picture of his old peewee baseball team, and, specifically, Neil, that he feels he may have just made a breakthrough discovery…

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To say much more would be to spoil much of the intrigue of Mysterious Skin. The clue is in the title; the film harbours many mysteries, twists, and unexpected turns that keep the viewer constantly wrong-footed. Neil may want to escape the past by moving to New York, but after a particularly unpleasant encounter (so intense as to border on the unwatchable), he returns to uncover the mystery at the heart of the film. It’s a satisfying, if painful, ending; completely fragile, sensitively handled, and utterly unforgettable. The film closes with the melancholic refrain of carol singers, and it ends an often troubling, disorientating film on a moment of real beauty.

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Mysterious Skin will not be for everybody. In its depiction of child abuse and its lingering trauma, as well as teenage prostitution and rape, the film doesn’t hold back a thing; it avoids being gratuitous or lurid, but it is very frank about the events depicted. Gregg Araki, often criticised as juvenile or trashy, reached a career high point he never came close to again. Not only does he handle the tricky script with remarkable maturity and sensitivity, but he keep the film visually stylish and draws out wonderful performances from mostly young, inexperienced actors.

Though the cast are consistently good, and Brady Corbet and Chase Ellison are both excellent, this is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s film. If you’ve only seen him as the action star of Inception, or the romantic lead of (500) Days of Summer, his performance is a revelation. Neil McCormick is a difficult character, one that can’t be portrayed with easy tics and tricks, but Gordon-Levitt is note perfect from start to finish, even in some scenes that must have been beyond hard to perform. It’s a sublime performance that compliments a sublime film; difficult and disturbing it may be, but Mysterious Skin is a harsh, hypnotic masterpiece, and likely to be a cult classic for years to come.

By Harry J. Ford

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  1. I just saw this film a month or two ago, after hearing it mentioned quite often in discussions about Fire Walk With Me (a movie I’ve frequently written, talked and created videos about in the past year). I thought it was fantastic and very powerful, a film that definitely deserves to be spoken of in the same breathe as Lynch’s controversial masterpiece.

    Its relationship to Twin Peaks is interesting because it does something Fire Walk With Me either couldn’t or wouldn’t do: mix the fun, alluring mystery/supernatural aspects with the harrowing, realistically-portrayed psychological trauma at the mystery’s core. (Obviously FWWM has many supernatural features, but they aren’t “fun” in the same way as the series at least not to my eyes.)

    In that sense Corbet’s story is like Twin Peaks the show, a goofy, endearing, creepy, fairly exaggerated take on the material, while Gordon-Levitt’s is more like FWWM: brutal, beautiful yet ugly, no punches pulled. I love how the two storylines come together in the end (another Lynch hallmark).

    I had never seen Araki’s work before Mysterious Skin and was surprised to discover his reputation for shallowness and and style-over-substance, even to the point that some critics or viewers saw that here of all places. That said, I did watch Snow Bird in a White Blizzard soon after Mysterious Skin, and found it to be very flat and empty, aside from the appealing surface.

    Clearly, the material here really resonated with him and brought out one of the best films of the decade. It’s funny, I don’t remember hearing much of anything about the film when it came out in 2004 – I had begun my descent into my present state of ignorance about contemporary cinema/new releases but was still paying enough attention at that time that I’d think I would have heard SOMETHING.

    Pity too, as part of the reason I drifted from the new release scene was that I didn’t find much of what was getting released to be very emotionally engaging. This movie definitely would have tempered that.

  2. Er, make that “White Bird in a Blizzard.” (What the hell is a “snow bird”?!!)

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