Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin is a difficult film to sit through. In fact, about 20 minutes in I considered getting up and politely walking out rather than endure any more of it. It had nothing to do with the film being bad (although I didn’t think it was spectacular) but rather the subject matter.
I try to have an open mind when it comes to watching movies. Even if I don’t agree with a film’s point of view, ignoring others’ perspectives is pure ignorance. However, Mysterious Skin is about one of those subjects that’s just hard to watch. It revolves around the molestation of two boys and how they grow up and cope.
Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was the star of his Little League team. Brian (Brady Corbet) was the bench warmer. Their coach (Bill Sage) is a pervert who has his way with both boys when they were eight. As they grow up, Neil and Brian deal with it in different ways. Neil becomes a male prostitute and a reckless one at that. Brian suppresses the memories, convincing himself that the five-hour gap on the fateful night in question was an alien abduction.
The most interesting thing I found about Mysterious Skin was the parallels it shared with an unlikely source: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra Terrestrial. Yes, both are set in the same 1980’s suburban time frame and both have aliens. But the greatest similarity stems from the theme of boys getting through life without their fathers. Neil’s father is never shown nor mentioned. His mother (Elizabeth Shue) raised him on her own. Brian’s father is shown at the beginning of the film and he is clearly resentful when he realizes his nerdy son isn’t going to become a jock. It is later revealed that Brian’s parents divorced and Brian didn’t talk with his dad much. Like E.T.‘s Elliott, both experience adolescence without a father figure to guide them. In turn, they create their own figures to look up to.
Mysterious Skin is a very well acted film with a tremendous ensemble cast. My problem stems from how Araki chose to tell the story. Everything except for some of the small details are told from the outset. As Brian explores the possibility that he went up in a spaceship, it’s obvious to the viewer what he’s going to discover. This makes his journey anticlimactic to a large extent.
Neil’s journey appears to be used for shock value. Rather than implying sex acts, Araki shows them. He is always careful to frame the screen so as not to be indecent but it’s nonetheless extremely disturbing. Just the mention of molestation is enough to make me squirm. Showing it seems extreme, especially when the purpose of the film is to show how people deal with the act rather than the act itself.
Another problem I had was the sheer number of characters who cluttered the film’s landscape. They’re all quite complex and interesting in their own right, but they serve little purpose in the story other than to be sounding boards for Brian and Neil. A select few supporting players developed deeply would have given Neil and Brian balance and make their situation all the more dramatic. As it stands, these characters raise several additional subplots that are brought up as though they were main characters but are often left with little attempt at resolve. It’s almost as though there’s some confusion on whose story Mysterious Skin is and who the narrator should be.
While there is some value in the characters and the performances, this is a film that I wish I had not seen. Part of that stems from the subject matter but a lot more has to do with how it was put together. Don’t expect Mysterious Skin to be a crowd pleaser on a Saturday night. It’s not, nor does it want to be. Araki truly wants to make you squirm.
Mysterious Skin Gallery