Directed by Gregg Araki. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Sage, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeffrey Licon, Lisa Long. (2005, NR, 99 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 1, 2005
Filmmaker Gregg Araki, heretofore best known for his numerous ragged and nihilistic coming-of-age, gay melodramas, here crosses over from the fringes to make his most mature and penetrating drama to date. Although he’s still transgressive to the core, Araki nevertheless creates with Mysterious Skin a story that is psychologically rich, emotionally haunting, and technically superior to anything he has ever done. And although the film’s subject matter is disturbing and its outlook bleak, Mysterious Skin is not without hope and possibility. Adapted by Araki from a first novel by Scott Heim, the movie explores the long-term effects of child sexual abuse. The focus of the film is not on the abuse or the abuser, but on the aftereffects and lingering scars. Araki handles the material with a sensitivity and delicacy that is newly apparent in his work and smooths over his usual anarchic touches with this film’s elegant compositions and camerawork and nuanced performances. Araki has always had a kindred sense for drawing out the emotional truths of young adults, but Mysterious Skin marks the first time the filmmaker has been able to shape these dramas into something that pushes beyond simple catharsis and into the realms of compassion, understanding, and reclamation. Mysterious Skin slips in and out of time periods to show us its Kansas characters at different stages of development. For quite a while, it’s difficult to see how these different fragments from two boys’ separate lives will ever connect up, so different are they. Brian (Corbet) is a socially awkward teenager, whose unexplained blackouts as a child demand an ever greater space in his conscious life as he grows toward adulthood. He comes to believe he was abducted by space aliens but in his obsessive journal drawings the aliens are wearing baseball cleats, and indeed Brian begins thinking about one particular boy on his Little League team whom he suspects has the answer to his personal mystery. That boy is Neil (Gordon-Levitt), whose beautifully chiseled physique and rambunctious gay spirit hide an embedded streak of cruelty and emotional distance. He only has a couple of friends (all of whom feel like aliens in Kansas) and hustles all the area’s older gay men for tricks. Neil was molested long ago by his Little League coach (Sage), and though it made him feel special at the time, it’s clear the secret experience has launched him on a path of conflicted emotions and self-abuse. Gordon-Levitt will be a revelation if all you’ve seen him in is 3rd Rock From the Sun as the goofy teen alien. His riveting performance is the film’s linchpin, as the work would never be as searing as it is without his contribution. All the performances, in fact, are astonishingly good: Araki trades in his nonprofessional acting aesthetics for this polished ensemble drama. Often Mysterious Skin conveys a Donnie Darko sense of vague environmental threat and the untrustworthiness of memories, especially as Brian tries to unravel his past. An ethereal music score, by Harold Budd and the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie, subtly enriches the sense of mystery that lies at the movie’s core. Mysterious Skin is being released unrated since it would have received an NC-17 rating by the MPAA board. The film’s content is adult – and for the first time in Araki’s career, so is the director.