Mysterious Skin


    THIS REVIEW CONTAINS WHAT SOME MAY FEEL ARE SPOILERS.

             Along with Tom Kalin (SWOON, 1992), Todd Haynes (POISON,
     1991) and Gus Van Sant (
MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO, 1991), Gregg
     Araki was in the vanguard of the New Queer Cinema which dawned in
     the early 1990s. Since then, each of these fine filmmakers has pursued
     divergent paths, with Van Sant enjoying commercial success (and an
     Academy Award nomination) with
GOOD WILL HUNTING (1997),
     while Kalin more or less retired to academia and Haynes became a
     critics’ darling with such varied efforts as
VELVET GOLDMINE (1998)
     and
FAR FROM HEAVEN (2002). Araki carved his own niche with
     efforts ranging from his HIV-positive lovers on the run drama
     
THE LIVING END (1992) to the anarchic teens that populated his
     anti-
“BEVERLY HILLS, 90210” trilogy about teen angst:  
     
TOTALLY FUCKED UP (1993), THE DOOM GENERATION (1995) and
     NOWHERE (1997). Following SPLENDOR (1998), about a
       ménage-a-trois that was almost a modern update of Coward's
     
DESIGN FOR LIVING, Araki took something of a break. He’s now
     returned to the big screen with a moving adaptation of Scott Heim’s
     1995 debut novel
MYSTERIOUS SKIN.

             Araki became known during his hey day as a terrific stylist who
     employed Pop Art as a commentary on the nihilistic lives of his
     characters. His movies often divided critics and audiences, with many
     feeling that he was stagnating as a filmmaker. Whether it is because
     he is working from someone else’s source material or that he took
     some time to expand his horizons away from the big screen,
     
MYSTERIOUS SKIN has to rank as a major step in his evolution as a
     writer-director and his most satisfyingly made motion picture yet.

             Araki has remained very faithful to both the scope and content
     of Heim’s novel. Set in primarily in the heartland of the United States,
     (Kansas, with a brief sojourn to New York City),
MYSTERIOUS SKIN
       
focuses on two young men, Brian (an excellent Brady Corbet), a
     troubled teenager who is convinced that he was abducted by aliens
     as a child, and Neal (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a sexually        
     precocious jock who becomes a teenage hustler. When Hutchinson
     becomes too small for Neal, he sets out to join one of his best
     friends, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), in Manhattan, where he
     sustains a living as a male prostitute.

             Since over the last several decades, pedophilia and child abuse
     have moved into the mainstream, no thanks in part to such events as
     the McMartin trial, the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church and
     the travails of pop singer Michael Jackson. Filmmakers have addressed
     the issue in documentaries (the superb
CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS)
     and fictional films (
L.I.E., THE WOODSMAN); although in most
     cases the movies look at the perpetrator and not the victim. What
     lent Heim’s novel its power (and by extension Araki’s film adaptation)
     is that it focused on the children, the abused.

             Neal was something of a precocious child so he’s almost
     primed to fall prey to his Little League Coach (played by Bill Sage,
     looking like Robert Redford’s younger brother). By the age of eight,
     Neal was already aware that he was attracted to men, so the
     attention and praise of the golden boy coach could only be welcomed.
     It comes as no surprise that ten years later, Neal is hanging out in
     parks and playgrounds turning tricks with older men. He’s no fool,
     either, as he dismisses one potential client with the sarcastic
     comment, “I hate when they look like Tarzan but sound like Jane.”
     Yet, despite his hard edge, there remains something of a naïf, which
     becomes clear once he has decamped to Manhattan and falls prey
     to a vicious client.

             In contrast to Neal is Brian, the asexual, bespectacled young
     man. Although the blond youngster looks somewhat angelic, he’s
     uncoordinated and not socially developed. When there’s a five-hour
     gap in his life, Brian becomes convinced he was abducted by space
     aliens. A second occurrence on Halloween, when he's decked out
     like a little devil, further convinces him. Obsessed with the idea, he
     turns to a young woman who lives nearby and was profiled in a TV
     reality show about alien abductions. Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub)
     encourages Brian and inadvertently aids him in remembering that he
     was actually a victim of sexual abuse, not once but twice. He recalls
     the presence of another boy and sets out to find him, which leads
     to an encounter with Neal. The final scene is the most touching and
     disturbing in the film.

             Araki has beautifully rendered the novel on screen, making his
     best feature to date. In the press notes, he outlined the difficulties
     in shooting the scenes involving the young boys (they were not aware
     of the film’s subject matter) and the performances he evoked from
     the pair, George Webster as Brian and Chase Ellison as Neil, along
     with judicious editing, managed to capture the feel of the events
     without traumatizing the young actors.

             Gordon-Levitt and Corbet anchor the movie with their superb
     characterizations and they are finely supported by the cast, including
     Elisabeth Shue as Neal’s promiscuous mother, and Billy Drago as a
     trick more interested in human contact than in sex.

             Originally slapped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA,
     
MYSTERIOUS SKIN has been released unrated. It may lack appeal
     for a wide audience, but that’s too bad, because it is already a high
     point in a lackluster year.


                             Rating:                     A-
                             MPAA Rating:            NONE
                             Running time:           99 mins.
©  2005 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.