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