DVD Review Of Mysterious Skin
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/10/09
In watching the 2004 drama, Mysterious Skin, by filmmaker Gregg Araki, I was reminded of the old gilding the lily nostrum, in that a little bit less would have been a whole lot more, qualitatively, for this film. This is a very good film, that certainly had the potential to be great, but whose excesses knock it a notch or two below, just enough that it barely makes the argument for near greatness. On the surface, it may be said to be much like a 1970s ABC Afterschool Special of a film, admixed with a sometimes gratuitous penchant for over the top sexuality. Despite that, however, it does succeed as a teen-based drama in ways that another teen drama, like Mean Creek, did not, but also in ways that a similarly themed, and also excellent, film like L.I.E. did not.
Based upon a 1996 novel by Scott Heim, the 100 minute long film has many things going for it, including the linkage of the often overlooked phenomenon of Ďalien abductioní with childhood sexual abuse, an obvious connection which modern psychiatry has overlooked for too long. The tale is rather simple, although its telling is not. It follows the intertwined lives of two boys, in Hutchinson, Kansas, over a ten year period from 1981 to 1991 (the Grunge Generation). The boys are Neil McCormick (Chase Ellison) and Brian Lackey (George Webster), who are sexually abused by their Little League Coach (Bill Sage), and narrate the tale through voiceovers. Brian blocks out the incident, and because he returns one night with a nosebleed, he believes that and his Ďmissing timeí are indicative of being an alien abductee. Neil, however, claims to have always been queer, and likes the attention of Coach, as well as acting as a lure to seduce other little boys. Neil grows up to be a gay hustler (then played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), while Brian (Brady Corbet) becomes an introvert who is befriended by a shy and crippled UFO abductee claimant, Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), who soon develops sexual feelings for Brian, offering to blow him in his bedroom just seconds after his mother has left. Itís a hilarious scene, and one of the few non-violent, non-abusive, sex scenes in the film. This, however, leads to the end of their friendship, and Brianís renewed determination to find Neil, whom he hasnít seen in a decade, believing Neil is also a UFO abductee.
Neil, meanwhile, has moved to New York to be with his best girl Ďfriend,í Wendy (played by the oddly attractive but highly convincing Michelle Trachtenberg), and leaves behind his hometown bung buddy, Eric (Jeff Licon- who is just as good as Gordon-Levitt, in playing a queer teen, but in a far less showy role as a celibate flamer), and his single mom, played by the always easy on the eyes Elisabeth Shue. Eric befriends Brian, and the boys await Neilís return for Christmas. Neil, meanwhile, decides life as a gay prostitute in New York is much harder than in rural Kansas, after some way over the top, and brutal, encounters with johns. These are some of the weakest scenes in the film, because they do not accurately portray child prostitution- gay or straight, only gay male fantasies about rough anonymous sex with strangers. All the johns are buff, well off, and want to fuck teen boys. This tendency toward adult gay male fantasy over real childhood prostitution, also infects the scenes with Coach, for, as Neil returns, and soon guides Brian through the time he was abused, Brian recalls that it was Coach, not aliens, who abused him. Unfortunately, as well handled as this setup is, the payoff tanks, for Coach, it seems, wanted the boys to fist him. Now, having had a childhood that was involved in the sex industry, having known straight and queer child prostitutes and runaways, and having, decades later, worked in a county court that required me to often read the accounts of sexual abuse claims regarding male pedophiles, the fact is that Arakiís screenplay (however much influenced by Heimís book) is pure fantasy- likely influenced by both the novelistís and filmmakerís desires, rather than reality. The film ends on Christmas Eve, with the two boys breaking into Coachís old home (occupied by new people), and Neil revealing the truth. The final shot ends with an overhead pullback and voiceover that is excellent. The best part of that scene is how, when immediately seeing the blue Christmas lighting outside the old home of Coach, Brianís whole invented tale of UFO abduction instantly vanishes, and he realizes he was sexually abused. All he needs are the details from Neil. In an odd way, while the content manifestly differs, the emotional story arc of Mysterious Skin is quite reminiscent of Itís A Wonderful Life, with a frustrated character living life in a fog, over a past trauma, only to come to realize his truth on Christmas Eve. That the truths are differing in content and impact is true, but, despite that, one feels that Brian is all the better for having learnt said truth.
Despite the filmís overt departures from reality regarding the homosexuality and prostitution aspects, it does handle the matter of UFO abductees, and their psychological problems, quite well, and Mary Lynn Rajskub, as a deglamorized Avalyn, handles her easily parodic role with aplomb and convincing dignity. The look on her face, after Brian disallows her to fellate him, is golden. What also works well, in the script, is the realistic treatment of the pedophile in the picture. Yes, in a real sense, Coach is a criminal- perhaps even a predator, and certainly the fisting trope is over the top (even as it psychologically and emotionally dovetails perfectly with the moment Brian inserts his hand into the bloodless incision of a dead cow that Avalyn claims was mutilated by aliens), but itís clear that Coach is not Ďevil,í per se, and that, in some warped way, he really does care for Neil, and the other boys he Ďloves.í Iím not taking a pro-pedophilia nor pro-NAMBLA position, here, and clearly the eight year olds are in no position to sexually consent. That being said, however, the film aptly shows the folly and lunacy of trying to link some pedophiles with all serial killers, terrorists, or hitmen- killers with no redeemable qualities. Yes, there are pedophiles who violently and willfully sexually abuse and physically harm children, but they are the exceptions, likely, and most male pedophiles (at least the ones Iíve been unfortunate to know, and or study on the job) are more like Coach, in that Coach is not evil, just a lonely and fucked up guy who has never properly adjusted to his homosexual desires, and via societyís prohibitions and scorn, somehow sublimate those feelings into his own hidden way to get affection. This does not cleanse him of a crime, but it does remove the pedophilia he displays from some monstrous evil into an explicable human activity. The film should be commended for its treatment of such. The film also does commendably well in exploring a character, Neil, who is not really adversely affected by the Ďabuse,í because we see the character beforehand, and he is clearly a borderline sociopath to begin with. This is another aspect of the film that deserves praise, for the percentage of people who are able to move on with their lives despite neglect or abuse- sexual, physical, mental, emotional, etc., clearly dwarfs those who are forever stunted. Even Brian, by filmís end, is clearly set to accept his past and move on to the future. As for Neil, Coachís affections just push him more clearly in the direction he likely would have ended up going anyway. However, Araki again errs, and gilds his lily with phoniness, when we hear, in voiceover, early on, Neil claiming that, at eight years old, he had his first gism-laden ejaculation watching his mother fellate a boyfriend. Biologically speaking, this is impossible, and again reveals a bit too much of the filmmakerís deviance from sexual reality, at the cost to his art (a considerable cost given that the film had great potential).
There are some great moments, though- such as a scene where an old Vermeer loving john (Billy Drago) asks not for sex, but for a massage on his body ravaged with AIDS sores. The man gets off from mere human touch. It almost makes up for the unintentionally hilarious scene where another john, a young buff one, literally rips Neilís clothes off, French kisses him, and quickly asks for Neil to do him up the ass with his hot teenaged cock. Another scene that clunks is a too precious one of Neil and Wendy, at night, at a deserted old drive-in movie theater, speaking too poetically of their lives and God, only to have snow start falling on cue. Earlier in the film, we see that some of the violence Neil experiences may be payback for abuse he handed out to others, such as, when he was ten, on Halloween, when a retard whom he forced to have bottle rockets shoot out of his mouth is injured, and so, to keep the dim boy from tattling, Neil first handjobs, then fellates him. That same night, Brian has a second encounter with Coach, whom he later blocks out and assumes was an alien. Thereís also an odd, early scene, where, despite the filmís almost fetishistic subjective point of view shots (used most often for the little boys, to have them react to material other than the portrayed abuse at hand), Brian- as well as his mother and sister, seem to really see a UFO flying over their home as they watch from their rooftop. Whether this is just Brianís fantasy or indicative that Araki believes there is some truth to the UFO abduction phenomenon is unclear, but it is filled with the essence of childhood wonder, and, in the context of this film, adds a believable and needed breather to all the Ďheavyí stuff going on.
For all its focus on sexuality and abuse, the filmís strongest points come in portraying teen angst in a real manner, better than even Stand By Me, as well as the loneliness children feel in small towns, especially the pointless frustration that talentless youths feel. This is because, for all the idolatry bestowed upon him by the three other teens: Wendy, Eric, and Brian, the fact is that Neil is utterly run of the mill and forgettable. And, at some level, he knows this, and reviles the others for their worship. The film has moments that evoke the best in films like My Dog Skip, My Life As A Dog, The Curse Of The Cat People, and Godzillaís Revenge, all terrific films that deal with often overlooked aspects of childhood. The film suffered many slings along the road to production- from bad reviews to attempts at censorship and banning, and, at a cost of $10 million made less than a tenth of that in box office, according to online sources. Itís too bad, because films like this, despite their flaws, should be made in Hollywood, not by self-marginalized directors like Araki (who seems to revel in gay and sexually bizarre subcultural themes).
The DVD, put out by Tartan Video, has the original theatrical trailer, trailers for other films, a reading of the source novel by the two male leads, and a film commentary by the director- Araki, and both male leads- Gordon-Levitt and Corbet. The commentary is actually quite good, especially compared to most actor-director commentaries. It is intelligent, witty, and to the point. Perhaps the only downside is Gordon-Levittís relentless boner and rhapsodizing about the beauty (or ĎhotnessĒ) of Micehelle Trachtenberg, whenever she is onscreen.
Mysterious Skin is a film that, upon rewatch, and even just after letting it settle in, will inevitably leave one wanting for more, but it does show that Araki is a filmmaker with potential, mostly via the screenplay aspect of the film, although Steve Gainerís cinematography also shows potential. It is not a film that, like those of Michelangelo Antonioni nor Akira Kurosawa, will dazzle you, but it will leave something within, and thatís all to rare these days. If Araki can rein in his worst tendencies (such as the belief that sex is easy for anyone to get- including nerds like Brian and Avalyn, and that there are a plethora of buff gay men willing to pay for anonymous sex with strangers), which likely emanate from his own unresolved sexual issues, his art can soar. Hereís hoping things work out, for him and us.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]
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