Last updated on 6 days ago
A teenage hustler and a young man obsessed with alien abductions cross paths, together discovering a horrible, liberating truth.
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Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin is a difficult film that deals with the difficult subject of child abuse. Suffice to say that this is not for the faint-hearted, and film’s depiction of certain cinematic taboos – most of all the portrayal of sex between an adult and a child – makes for decidedly uneasy viewing. This is not to say that the film in any way condones such behaviour – far from it – but the leap forward in what is acceptable to a mass audience is both startling and uncomfortable. The subject is both the film’s central theme and its chief talking point and will dominate any discussion on what is otherwise a somewhat earnest, painfully hip yet ultimately uneven and morally ambiguous work.
The story revolves around two teenagers from rural Kansas named Brian (Brady Corbett) and Neil (Joesph Gordon-Levitt), who have now drifted apart but share a common memory of something that happened when they were eight years old. The former friends have different recollections of a night that saw them both lose five hours of their life. Brian, now a somewhat geeky adolescent, is convinced that both of them were abducted by aliens. He obsesses about the fact, watching programmes on alien abductions all day long and talking to anyone who crosses his path about it.
Neil on the other hand, knows exactly what happened. Now a confident and extremely handsome young man, he has moved to the big city and plies his trade as a hustler on the gay scene. Always confident of his sexuality, Neil knows that the alien abduction was in fact a kidnapping and sexual abuse case involving the two boys and their charismatic baseball coach (Bill Sage), a charming figure that could persuade the boys to do just about anything he wanted.
And that’s exactly what he did. With increasingly disturbing scenes the film plays out the boys at first kissing to becoming more intimate with each other until the Coach himself becomes involved. It’s genuinely shocking stuff, and although nothing is exploitative in the way the film was made, the result is one of sheer horror that is extremely difficult to watch.
The boys clearly react differently to the event, with Neil confused about his own feelings towards his abuser. While there is certainly no condoning of such a relationship, the film examines the impact of such an occurrence with a fresh and uneasy eye, which some viewers may find tricky to assimilate. Despite a standout performance from the extraordinary Joseph-Gordon Levitt as Neil and a memorably creepy turn from Sam Cage as the abuser, this is tough stuff: both to watch and to fully empathise with.
“Mysterious Skin” is a mysterious movie. Not mysterious in a boring, unoriginal way, where the screenwriter screws you around with information; mysterious in the way that the characters are opening up in front of you, and yet they’re still enigmas; their depths hidden in plain view. It is the story of two teenage boys who were both sexually abused by the same man when they were younger. You already probably think the movie is dark and heavy, but it’s not; it imposes no message on the viewer, and does not come to any easy conclusions. It has a strange tone throughout ? a little like remembering something terrible and being unable to deal with it properly.
The movie has a lot of sex in it, but it does not comment on the sex. Sex is just an important part of the characters’ lives – to Neil because he is gay and enjoys sex with older men (he works as a rent boy); to Brian because he is not sexually driven, and is surrounded by something he wants no part of.
When the two boys were younger, they were sexually abused by their gym teacher, played by Bill Sage. Neil remembers this almost with fondness; the beginning of his sexual exploration. Brian can’t remember it at all; he blanked the episode out of his memory. The movie follow Brian through his journey to find out what happened during those holes in his memory, and Neil on his sad, slow decline from happiness.
While Brian is seeking him out, Neil earns enough money to travel to New York, where he continues his lifestyle until, in a scene I found difficult to watch, he is drugged, beaten and raped by one of his clients, after which he goes back home to his mother (played by Elisabeth Shue). Eventually, Brian tracks him down to find out what happened to him when he was younger.
This could easily have been the material for a heavy drama that forces a message down the audience’s throat, but what makes “Mysterious Skin” so good is its refusal to resort to black and white morals. It is true that the gym teacher is under-developed as a character, but at least he isn’t shown as a two-dimensional bad guy; children who are victims of abuse often like the abuser, and it is brave of the movie to suggest that Neil actually enjoyed it at the time, not knowing how it would affect him later in life, or what was being done to him. People may find this aspect of the movie makes them uncomfortable, but it is supposed to. It’s rare to find movies so honest about victims of abuse.
The movie has a certain tone that’s a little difficult to place; a certain lightness in details such as Brian’s theory that he was abducted by aliens during his black-outs. It’s not levity; more the feeling of trying to tolerate a damaged life. It has a certain erotic charge; it doesn’t deny that Neil enjoys sex, nor does it suggest that he would have been straight and ‘normal’ were he not abused ? the audience is left to decide the extent of the damage done to these boys. Some people don’t like movies like that; they want the movie to do all the work for them, and give them a neat little message that they probably already know. I prefer challenging movies that dare to go to new places. Such movies are not always good, but they are always interesting.
It’s difficult to get “Mysterious Skin” out of your head after you see it, and part of its strength comes from the two leads: Brady Corbet as Brian, and especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil. I knew the latter actor from his goofy role in “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and was amazed by his work here.
“Mysterious Skin” ends with the image of Neil and Brian in the old house of their coach, Brian lying with his head on Neil’s lap, and it’s the performances that make the image haunting. It’s not sexual attraction that brings them together, but need and confusion. Poor guys. Brian blanked out the episodes because he couldn’t face the truth, and Neil can’t face it either, though he thinks he can. He even convinces himself he’s happy. The smiling, friendly coach damaged them more than they know, but the movie’s strength is in the fact that it doesn’t make us pity them.