Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 6/12/06 w/ Additional Edits.
After the turmoil from his 90s teen-angst trilogy of 1993's Totally Fucked Up, 1995's The Doom Generation, and 1997's Nowhere along with 1999's Splendor. Gregg Araki had already made a career out of creating all sorts of chaos which helped pertain to his bad boy status in not just New Queer Cinema but also independent cinema. In 2000, Araki attempted to create a pilot for a show on MTV but when the pilot was rejected, Araki immediately went into hiding. Then in 2004 at the Venice Film Festival, Gregg Araki made his unexpected return to the cinema with what some called his most mature and sprawling work to date in the film about child abuse and growing up entitled Mysterious Skin.
Based on a novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin tells the tale of two childhood friends who reunite to uncover some secrets while dealing with their own individual troubles relating to child abuse. Written for the screen and directed by Araki, Mysterious Skin goes into full and gritty detail on the effects of child abuse as Araki moves away from the nihilism and cynical view of the world from his earlier films to more mature, sprawling territory. Starring Joseph-Gordon Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jeff Licon, Bill Sage, Chase Ellison, George Webster, and Elisabeth Shue. Mysterious Skin is a shocking yet harrowing masterpiece from the often controversial, nihilistic Gregg Araki.
It's 1981 in Kansas as a young boy named Brian (George Webster) is at a little league baseball game and then suddenly, he finds himself in a cellar at home with his nose bleeding. Around that same year, his teammate Neil (Chase Ellison) has become a favorite for his coach (Bill Sage) for his playing skills in the game. Then one night, Neil and his coach have a night of fun that would immediately affect Neil's young life. Two years later, Neil and his friend Wendy (Riley McGuire) are trick-or-treating on Halloween as Neil reveals a shocking secret to Wendy on a young boy (Ryan Stenzel). Around that same time, Brian with his older sister Deborah (Rachael Kraft) trick-or-treating where everything goes into chaos where he blacks out again and finds his nose bleeding again where for several years, he would often pass out, have nose bleeds, and have recurring nightmares about a possible incident that he might've been abducted by aliens.
In 1987, Neil turns 15 as he starts a new career as a young hustler where he’s become a beautiful young man who hustles sex with older men in Kansas. After an encounter with an elder man (Richard Riehle) that becomes his first real job, Neil tells Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) that he is now officially a hustler. Four years later, Neil has become a profitable hustler who now hopes to go New York City. While still living with his liberal yet caring mother (Elisabeth Shue), he hopes to leave his dead-end town in Kansas while still hanging out with friends Eric (Jeff Licon) and Wendy, who is also set to depart for New York City. In that same town, Brian (Brady Corbet) is still reeling from his nightmares as he now collects his recollections into a diary. Still living with his mother (Lisa Long), Brian's interest in UFOs after claiming he saw one when he was eight with his sister and mother has peaked. He recorded a TV program where a woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) from a town 30 miles away who claimed she had been abducted by aliens.
Brian drives to meet Avalyn where they recall their own recollections of aliens as Brian remembers that another boy was in his dream. He finds a picture of his old baseball team and recognized the boy in his dream from that picture. After Wendy departs for New York City, Neil still hustles to make funds for his trip to New York City while maintaining a behavior that is often cynical which makes his friendship with Eric very complicated since Eric has a crush on him. Even Eric isn't aware of all of Neil’s secrets that he only shares with Wendy as Neil finally departs for New York City. After dropping off Neil at the bus station, Eric and Neil's mother find Brian on the doorstep who is looking for Neil.
Neil arrives to New York City where he got a dose of culture-clash as he remains a hustler but his customers including a strange man (Billy Drago) have been very strange. Back in Kansas, Eric befriends Brian as the two discuss Brian’s discovery of alien abductions and his dreams after Brian had a falling-out of sorts with Avalyn. Knowing that the dreams involve Neil, they hope for Neil to return to the holidays as Eric changes a bit of Brian's lifestyle as he introduces him to alternative music. Still living with Wendy, Neil hopes to return to Kansas as he finds his lifestyle taking a toll on him as he starts to take a minimum wage job. Yet, Neil couldn't escape his lifestyle which takes an ugly turn as he returns to Kansas. After a confrontation with his father (Chris Mulkey) who asks about what happened to him, he finds no answers until Neil's return where Neil finally tells Brian about what had happened to him on that night in 1981.
The subject of pedophilia and its repercussions are often issues that is never discussed on cinema since Hollywood would often sugarcoat it or just dismiss it entirely. For Gregg Araki, the subject proved to be powerful enough to explore and observe as Araki restrains himself a bit to focus more on the characters and its dramatic aftermath. Taking careful consideration into Scott Heim's novel, Araki manages to put more of Heim's work into the script as Araki strays away from his often nihilistic persona of his earlier work for a more mature observation. The end result still has elements of shock that Araki is known for but he restrains some of those shocking moments, often involving homosexual sex scenes but not showing them explicitly.
Still, Araki manages to take two protagonists and their individual stories feel cohesive since it's structured that their stories will merge together in the end. Araki's set-up and writing structure carefully tells the tale of these two young boys while its core subject of pedophilia is still hanging over their head. Araki knows it's a bad thing but from the perspective of one of its characters, it seems like it could be something far more troubling and psychological. Particularly when Araki's narrative which is told by the two boys reveals a lot of the emotional and troubling aspects of the incident that could've happened. Araki even manages to make the idea of UFOs and alien abductions to not be distracting as he explores more emotional centers and development of the characters. It's not just Araki's script that is filled with some wonderful, observant moments but its his directing that is more harrowing in its subject matter.
Taking a dreamy yet ominous atmosphere to the film, Araki takes his directing style to new heights while making the shocking moments of the film become more of a service to the story. Especially right in the film's ending where Neil and Brian discuss the night that Brian blacked out which leads to a huge, emotional payoff that is heartbreaking. While Araki is aware that audience is going to know what will happen, it's the emotional aftermath that really pays off for the audience to observe and understand what happened and how it affected their own lives. While the film may not be entirely Araki's work, it still has many elements that Araki has delved in the past which includes alienation, culture shock, cynicism, and growing up. In many ways, Araki truly captures a unique vision as he matures into becoming an amazing director.
Helping Araki in his visual presentation is cinematographer Steve Gainer whose colorful palettes and filters present a dreamy yet atmospheric feel to the film where many of the dream sequences are shot in blue. Even the film's exteriors in the Kansas scenes shot in California are wonderfully colorful to convey its dreariness as well as the night scenes in New York City as Gainer helps Araki present a wondrous vision. Production designer Devorah Herbert and art director Morgan Blackledge also do great work in capturing the look of 1981 Kansas with all of its props and appliances and its more decaying contrast in 1991 Kansas. Costume designer Alix Hester also does great work with the film's costumes as he presents Brian with a nerdy look and Neil as a more iconic look of a leather jacket, white shirts, and thing that shows their parallel lifestyles.
With Araki serving as his own editor and cutting on a Final Cut 4 Pro, Araki does wonderful cutting work of dissolves and fade-outs to convey the sense of behavior and atmosphere of the film and its characters while using long shots and jump-cuts for a stylistic presentation and subtle pacing for its 99-minute running time. Sound editor Trip Brock does wonderful work in conveying the film's atmosphere with its sound design.
Known for his love of alternative and underground rock, Araki enlisted the help of former Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie and ambient music composer Harold Budd to create a moody, dreamy film score that is extremely haunting to convey the film's mood. Helping out in the music is a wonderful film soundtrack that opens with a cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair by the shoegaze band Slowdive who contribute three tracks to the soundtrack. Also included are the Cocteau Twins, Curve, Sigur Ros, composer Dag Gabrielson with Alex Lacamoire, Ride, and actress Evan Rachel Wood who is one of many singers in a cover of the classic Christmas song Silent Night.
The film's cast is inspiring since it includes several noted characters actors as Richard Riehle, David Alan Graf, John Ganun, and Billy Drago as some of Neil's customers with Drago standing out in a very disturbing scene. Chris Mulkey is also good as Brian's often neglectful but caring father who couldn't find any answers for his son's troubles despite their time apart together. Kelly Kruger is good in her small role as Brian's sister Deborah while Rachael Kraft is even better as the young Deborah. Lisa Long is excellent as Brian's more conservative, caring mother while Elisabeth Shue stands out as Neil's more liberal, flirtatious mother who despite her own promiscuous lifestyle, is a caring woman. Jeff Licon is great as Eric who starts out as a gay partner for Neil only to become a real friend for the very nerdy Brian.
Riley McGuire is excellent as the young Wendy while Michelle Trachtenberg really shines as the older, maternal Wendy who cares for Neil as she is the only who shares his secrets while grounding him to reality. Mary Lynn Rajskub is great as Avalyn who shares many of Brian's paranoia as she reveals to him some dark secrets while naively trying to seduce him in a somewhat comical scene as Rajskub stands out. Another notable standout is Bill Sage as the coach who might seem like a nice, playful guy but conveys a dark secret though Sage manages to make him not as creepy as he seems. In the performance of the young Brian, George Webster is amazing in his role as a young, troubled kid who is in a state of shock as everything he does, he couldn't explain as Webster sells the character's despair. Chase Ellison is also great as the young Neil with his exuberant, playful performance that is the right tone for what is to come from the older Neil.
Brady Corbet truly gives the performance of his career as the nerdy, troubled Brian with his stoic image and often troubled personality. Corbet sells all of the moments of innocence throughout the film as he tries to figure out the nightmares while having some great scenes with Rajskub, Licon, and Lisa Long while he brings many of the film's emotional moments to great heights. Corbet really brings a lot of sympathy and angst to his role in what is truly a standout performance. Joseph-Gordon Levitt gives probably a really magnificent performance as the more extroverted Neil. Levitt displays all of the sexuality, charm, and complexity of his character who starts off being this playful but hostile hustler who seems to have it all figured out. Then when he's in New York, Levitt conveys all of the confusion of his character as he tries to fill answers for Corbet in a truly devastating yet powerful moment where both actors shine. Levitt is a real breakthrough considering his work as a kid in films like Angels in the Outfield and the TV show 3rd Rock from the Sun to more recent ventures in films like Manic and 2005's Brick.
While the film and its subject matter might not be for all audiences, Mysterious Skin remains a harrowing yet touching film from the often controversial Gregg Araki thanks to a great cast led by Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Brady Corbet. Anyone who wants an insight into Araki's work will indeed find this film his most fulfilling while it's not as accessible as his romantic comedy love-triangle in 1999's Splendor. Still, it's this film is the one to see that shows Araki's ability as a storyteller while more conservative audiences will be shocked by its homosexual overtones and pedophile context. While Araki fans will no doubt, enjoy this film. New to Araki's work who aren't into his nihilistic earlier work will no doubt find Mysterious Skin to be a poignant, emotionally-powerful film from the controversial director.
Gregg Araki Films: (Three Bewildered People in the Night) - (The Long Weekend (0' Despair)) - The Living End - Totally Fucked Up - The Doom Generation - Nowhere - (Splendor) - (This is How the World Ends) - Smiley Face - Kaboom - (White Bird in a Blizzard)
(C) thevoid99 2011