Home Video Hovel: Mysterious Skin, by David Bax
Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin is, like all Gregg Araki movies, designed to be understood first and foremost by the same types of people it’s about. The reason his films, like The Doom Generation or Totally F***ed Up, become badges for young, American outsiders is that they offer up a feeling of exclusivity that doubles as a cultural refuge for those who feel misunderstood or disenfranchised by the conformity that surrounds them.
Mysterious Skin (adapted by Araki from the novel by Scott Heim) follows two protagonists as they come of age in neighboring small towns in the 1980s. Neil, played mostly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a sharp-edged gay kid who relies on prostitution to finance his move to the city. Brian, played mostly by Brady Corbet, is a meek and charmingly square oddball with a fixation on the topic of alien abduction. Brian believes he was abducted by extraterrestrials as a child when he was on the same baseball team as Neil. Eventually, he decides to track his former teammate down to try to find more information.
What actually transpired with Brian and Neil as children is much more human and sinister than alien abduction. But Mysterious Skin isn’t some Lifetime Network issues-driven melodrama about child molestation. Araki is more interested in trying to take a clear-eyed look at how people become what they become. What cocktail of bad fathering (Brian’s uncaring dad is played perfectly by Chris Mulkey; Neil’s is absent), misplaced mothering (Lisa Long; Elisabeth Shue) and physical/psychological trauma combined with a genetic roll of the dice determined what these boys would be? Is Brian’s shyness the result of his abuse or is his shyness what made him a target? What happened to these boys is horrific but Araki loves them too much to reduce them to victims.
Indeed, Araki is more than willing to let his characters be unkind and even unlikable. Neil has a propensity for emotional cruelty that our sympathies allow us to forgive up to a point. Luckily for the film and for the viewer, Mysterious Skin came along just as Gordon-Levitt was just beginning to slip into the acting groove in which he has resided comfortably since 2007’s The Lookout. Here, he is still raw and sometimes unsure, lending Neil an authentic jitteriness. But he is also learning to trust himself with the darker side of his role.
Brian and Neil’s lives have plenty of dark sides but Araki’s humanism refuses to allow the story to dwell in them. Instead, the boys’ demons lurk, informing even the tender moments of friendship (of which the film has a good deal). Their past experience has imbued their lives with a fatalism that is, in many ways, crushing. Yet, it can also be freeing, allowing for carefree abandon. Nearly every frame contains brightly colored accoutrements, yet tries to smother them with the dingy filter of realism. It’s emblematic of the world they inhabit, which is both an airy dreamland and a violent hellscape. If you’ve never felt like a terminal weirdo, that may sound like an impossible contradiction. That’s by design.
Special features include new thoughts by Gordon-Levitt, Corbet, Araki and Heim.