Mysterious Skin ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


This film is tough. This film is really, really tough. Ignore for a moment that it deals with child abuse, teenage prostitution, rape and the empty futility of a life wasted, and consider the core message itself: that trauma is unavoidable, that one day we’re all going to suffer some sort of tragedy and that, no matter how we attempt to deal with that tragedy, it will always be there, shaping our lives and dragging us back into the past. It’s one of those unspoken truths that is so simultaneously terrifying and crushing, and one that it is very hard to effectively capture via the medium of film, that it’s a true testament to all involved that Mysterious Skin is one of the greatest films of the last decade.

The premise of the film is quite disturbing and, for many, will be utterly impossible to endure. Let’s not beat about the bush, if you’re a parent, a victim or even just a sensitive person, this film will probably crush your soul. It focuses primarily on Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an adolescent, Chase Ellison as a child), a teenage male prostitute who, at the age of 8, was sexually abused by his Little League coach. Demonstrating signs of homosexuality from a very early age, Neil misinterprets the coach’s actions as a sexual awakening and grows up to be a highly promiscuous, emotionally detached young man with an attraction to middle-aged, moustachioed men who bare a more-than-passing resemblance to said coach. On the other end of the scale, Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet as a teenager, George Webster as a child) responds to a childhood trauma of his own – which he is convinced was the result of alien abduction – by developing psychogenic amnesia, only daring to uncover the truth when he reaches the age of eighteen. As Neil delves further into a life of petty crime and prostitution, which becomes increasingly more dangerous (resulting in one of the most horrific cinematic moments I’ve ever seen), Brian becomes more and more neurotic and paranoid, even going so far as to meet up with a young lady called Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who is convinced that she too was abducted by aliens. Brian’s only solid clue comes from his memories of Neil and he sets off to find him and discover the tragic, heart-breaking truth.

The themes are, as you can imagine, pretty intense. They’re also handled with a beautiful degree of sensitivity that never detracts from the reality of what is happening, and has happened, to these two boys. Neil’s story is brave and authentic and Brian’s story offers an intriguing contrast, the two characters demonstrating opposite – but ultimately very similar – reactions to their childhood traumas. I thought the decision to present Neil as someone who actually enjoyed what happened to him incredibly disheartening but ultimately engrossing and added a real layer of grim brutality to the story that never once becomes sensationalist. As far as stories that tackle these themes go, this is by far the most realistic and thought-provoking that I’ve seen. Araki skilfully handles all of the threads of the story, exploring the build-up, the trauma and the aftermath with a consistent level of care and attention that makes it totally engrossing. By the end I was a complete wreck and I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to pause it after the scene in the Brighton Beach bathroom to calm myself down.

Whilst I don’t want to divulge too much information about what actually happens as the film progresses, nor about how it handles some of its more controversial themes, I would like to say that the ending offers no respite and is one of the most simple but crushing things I’ve ever witnessed. Araki brings all of the threads together to create an astonishingly apt conclusion that doesn’t really offer any solutions at all, perfectly capturing the true effect of what these boys have suffered. His direction is stunning – he never overeggs the pudding to make the tough scenes any tougher than they need to be and indeed, at times, he adds a layer of dreamlike beauty to them that is phenomenally appropriate given the circumstances.

What makes the film, however, is the total believability of its characters and the authenticity of the script. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is absolutely mind-blowing as Neil, further proving his worth as an actor who is much too good for mindless guff like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, and he makes his character completely accessible. There’s a bit of Neil in every single one of us - a reluctance to face up to our demons, a detached attitude to past tragedies and an inability to move forward – and Gordon-Levitt portrays that in abundance. When you consider what is being asked of him, this is an astonishing performance and one that deserves a much larger audience than it has currently received. His two friends, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) and Eric (Jeff Licon) help to ground his story and make it all the more plausible, with the two stars offering fantastic and suitably subdued performances themselves. Brady Corbet captures Brian’s geekiness and fear of uncovering the truth perfectly and Bill Sage, as the coach, offers one of the most believable portrayals of a paedophile I’ve ever seen (one that is matched only by Dylan Baker’s turn in Happiness). However, the real stars of this film are the two child actors who portray Neil and Brady when they’re eight years of age. Think about what they’re being asked to do and then look at how they handle it. It’s nothing short of outstanding.

This film is crushing and it’s not easy to watch. If you’re easily offended or easily upset then I’m not sure you’re going to like it. If, like me, you’re a glutton for punishment then you may love it (if one can ever “love” a film such as this). A real tour de force in filmmaking, one can’t heap enough praise on this film, despite it being utterly, utterly heart-wrenching.

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