Judge Brett Cullum was pleased to find that controversial director Gregg Araki has finally hit one out of the park.
Brian: The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life…five hours.
Mysterious Skin is easily the best Gregg Araki film ever made, and also one of the best movies of 2005. It certainly didn't do major boffo box office like Batman Begins, and Araki is not at the notoriety level of a David Cronenberg, so his film won't be as recognized critically as A History of Violence. Still, few movies are this haunting or this well done. Don't let the subject matter turn you off—Mysterious Skin is beautiful, tender, and well filmed. This is a DVD that begs to be bought or rented as soon as possible.
Facts of the Case
At age eight, Neil and Brian played baseball in their hometown in Kansas. Ten years later their lives are wildly different, yet somehow they are both anchored in the one summer they shared on the field. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock From the Sun) has grown into a calculating teenage hustler who prefers the company of older men. Brian (Brady Corbet, Thirteen) quietly exists as a nervous introvert who is convinced he was kidnapped by aliens. Both boys were abused by their baseball coach, but they deal with it in completely different ways. Neil embraces the time as a shining example of the one time he was truly loved, while Brian erases the event from his memory and transforms it in to a fantasy involving space creatures. But the scars of abuse are long and deep, and soon both boys must confront each other and their pasts if life is to move on. They need to learn how to love, and who they really are. Mysterious Skin chronicles their journey.
Most people I meet have a "love" or "hate" relationship with Gregg Araki, if they even recognize the name at all. He's a self-styled peculiar filmmaker who works largely with gay themes wrapped around inventive production design and confrontational violence. The Living End, Totally F***ed Up, and The Doom Generation established his trademark—gloriously beautiful grunge style over substance. Later, Nowhere and Splendor further alienated audiences with candy-colored sets and randomly-drawn characters who seemed to have little motivation outside of sex and violence. It was like sitting through a Quentin Tarantino film directed by a drag queen. Glitter and violence everywhere, but hardly a shred of anything other than cool posturing. Imagine A Clockwork Orange put on by a group of New York female impersonators, and you'd be getting close to the idea of the typical Araki film.
Mysterious Skin takes Araki's style and marries it with a source novel that suits his voice. He's found something to latch on to, and the film is searing and heartfelt. He doesn't trade in any of his aesthetics, but Gregg has grown up enough to make an adult film about coming of age under difficult circumstances. Nothing in Mysterious Skin hasn't been explored in some fashion by Araki before, but this time out it all feels fresh, and has impact because we have something to latch on to.
Part of the success of the film belongs to triumphant performances by its teenage cast. Brady Corbet was barely 16 when he was cast as the lead in this film, yet he plays his world-weary role of Brian as if he were middle aged. He's a nerd who desperately wants to discover why he does not belong in the world. We feel his pain, and know he is deluding himself with his alien fantasies. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a revelation as Neil. He's sexy, daring, and looks suspiciously a lot like a young Gregg Araki or his favorite muse James Duvall (Independence Day and almost every Araki film to date). The scenes where he turns tricks range from wildly comic to deeply touching. When faced with an AIDS patient who asks "just to be touched," Neil pulsates with a wild mix of fear and compassion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt proves he is a talent to be reckoned with in this role. It's breathtaking. Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) broadens her range by playing a Bohemian art girl who is best friends with Neil. She's the only one who knows his secret, and her unrequited love for him is all too painful. Jeff Licon (My Father's Love) plays another friend who seems to fall for both Neil and Brian without ever becoming truly involved with either. He's the outsider who only knows the two must meet. He ultimately brings them together for the film's stunning climax. Bill Sage (Boiler Room) portrays the creepy Coach, and his icky presence permeates the entire film. Elisabeth Shue (Hollow Man) gets to play Neil's alcoholic and largely absent mother. The adults never connect with their children, so it's little surprise she gets few scenes that stand out. The film is largely concerned with the kids, and they are who you'll remember the most.
Mysterious Skin never shows the sexual abuse of any children. The scenes involving the Coach were carefully shot to protect the younger actors in the production, and nothing ever goes too far. The film isn't fascinated with the act or understanding it, but concentrates more on the aftermath. These boys aren't victims in a traditional sense, but the sexually inappropriate acts performed on them when they were eight haunt their dreams and determine their lives. Araki makes it all romantic and poetic—in a disturbing way. This is where his style works to create a tortured dreamscape of childhood memories mixed with fear and wonder simultaneously. Cereal raining down on a smiling child is beautiful at first, but then deeply disturbing when given the context of the plot. The design makes the film feel more real, and it works wonders telling the tale. Araki sets the film inside a broken kaleidoscope of wild colors and drained people.
The film is possibly the best exploration of sexual child abuse ever made. It doesn't pull any punches, and it is smartly unapologetic in dealing with a taboo subject. Still, Araki chooses to candy coat his sets and photographs the drama through his unique lens of dazzling ethereal music and romantic angles. As troubling as the subject matter is, the film is highly rewatchable and achingly visual. The journey may be a rough one, but it's presented in a soft way to make it palatable. Araki has done what filmmakers like Tim Burton struggle with—he's punched through his highly visual style into a territory where it takes on emotion. He's found a way to make his pretty pictures powerful.
TLA Releasing does a solid job with their edition of Mysterious Skin. The transfer seems fine, given the film's independent shoot. Black levels vary, and there are some digital authoring problems, but for the most part the transfer is gorgeous. The opening scene in widescreen demonstrates the color clarity and true flesh tones as we see Fruit Loops hitting tan young skin on a white background. You can even discern grains of sugar flying in all directions. It's that clear. The sound options are wide-ranging, from simple stereo to a full-blown DTS surround track. The music is pumped in the surround versions, but the dialogue remains in the front speakers. The commentary with director and lead actors is enjoyable, but a little too self-congratulatory to be insightful. Seems every shot begins with "This is my favorite scene…," and goes from there to praise every person involved. There is a deeply fascinating extra where Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt read from the novel by Scott Heim. It is shot by Araki at an outdoor cafe, and they splice in scenes from the movie to give it more visual punch. It runs for a full hour, and you get to see both actors in a natural setting relating to the material in a whole new way.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
You don't have to pretend to hate Gregg Araki anymore, but the subject material is going to throw a lot of people for a loop. Unfortunately many will not get past the gay issue. That's sad, because Mysterious Skin transcends the niche genre triumphantly. It moves gay films up several notches, and shouldn't even truly be labeled as such. Still, some people will let their prejudices keep them away from a film that speaks honestly and openly about a subject we desperately need to understand. It will divide audiences because of the sex scenes. The Christian Science Monitor gave it the highest rating it could, but Christian fundamentalist groups will rail against the material for its "sinful" and "wicked" lifestyle. Homophobia sucks, but it'll keep this film from getting the Oscar recognition it deserves. Araki is still raging hard against the establishment, and they won't embrace him for it.
See the film with an open mind. Mysterious Skin begs to be discovered for its powerful emotional design. Araki found his heart, and the film celebrates a dark subject with candy colored ferocity you won't see anywhere else. There's never been a movie like this. It's time to pay homage to a filmmaker who has refused to bend to anyone's ideas of what his movies should be. It has a dark soul, but Mysterious Skin vibrates with an exploding heart only an abused teenager could produce. It's awesome, and one of the best films of 2005.
Guilty of being a brilliant treatise on how abuse can shape two lives. Horrifically beautiful, this is the film that turns Gregg Araki into a hero, finally. Mysterious Skin is free to go on weaving its powerful dream on DVD.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Commentary with Director Gregg Araki, Actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet
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