Mysterious Skin (BrianOrndorf)
June 20th, 2005
Lackluster filmmaker Gregg Araki tries to grow up from his usual collection of narcissism with his take on Scott Heim’s volcanically sexual novel, “Mysterious Skin.” The intent is clear, but the collection of overheated performances and bafflingly obvious direction make this another title thrown into in the bonfire of Araki’s career. With “Skin,” I’m now convinced the man will never make a decent film.
As young boys in Kansas, Brian (Brady Corbet, “Thunderbirds”) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) played on the same little league team. One night after a game, Brian disappeared for five hours, only to be found shivering and with a nosebleed. Brian grows up believing he was abducted by aliens that night, even searching out a fellow victim (Mary Lynn Rajskub) for help in piecing his life together. Neil takes a different path by choosing to wield his sexuality like a weapon, spending his formative years turning tricks for the local johns, and finding his way to New York, where small town sexual rules and controls don’t apply. Believing that Neil holds the clue to his mysterious disappearance, Brian searches the lost soul out, hoping to find critical answers.
I won’t pull any punches here: I’ve never been a fan of filmmaker Gregg Araki. With “The Doom Generation,” “Nowhere,” and many other stories of disaffected youth, Araki has worn his low-budget aesthetic like a badge, grinning as he routinely investigates rampant nihilism and promiscuity. Araki is entitled to his vision, and over the years he has developed a small fanbase that will eat up anything he serves, but when you step back from his filmography, the emptiness of his storytelling methods blazes like a supernova. “Mysterious Skin” is the filmmaker’s first attempt to tackle a tale that demands a certain form of respect.
“Skin” is adapted from a novel by Scott Heim, which forces Araki to maintain a tone that didn’t originate from his own screenwriting. “Skin” doesn’t fall far from Araki’s traditional modus operandi. The film still features a collection of angry youth, explicit sexuality, and an even-handed detailing of the homosexual experience, which makes the filmmaker a perfect partner to Heim’s original prose. Where Araki takes the film is someplace more conventional than a novel can go. Admittedly, the director has a huge challenge ahead of him, what with the film detailing the extreme effects of pedophilia on the mind and soul. And I give credit to Araki for not turning his camera away from the seemingly romantic nature of the violation. The film is sure to disturb with its scenes of pedophilic seduction and graphic sexuality (though what’s implied in this NC-17 feature is far more harrowing than what’s shown), but anyone who has followed Araki up to this point won’t even blink an eye. The filmmaker approaches the film like any other of his endeavors, and the wildly broad performances (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “I’m Acting!” turn), lousy dialog, and scattershot character concentration soon obliterates the fragile themes of the story.
Araki also misses a huge opportunity by hinging his story on Brian’s quest for answers about those five hours of his life. The mystery is maintained well for the first hour, but then there’s a split-second shot where Brian’s location during this time period is clearly displayed. Is the mystery solved? Absolutely, but not to Araki, who closes the film with Brian and Neil carefully going through their experiences as if the audience should be floored to learn the truth. The intended effect of emotional absolution is ruined by Araki’s playful nature, taking the much-needed sting out of “Skin’s” final jolt.
While Araki constructs “Mysterious Skin” as his most careful, adult feature to date, there’s nothing in the film that shows any great strides in storytelling maturity. Heim wrote a killer tale with “Skin,” but in giving it to Araki, the power of the words has been dissolved into mush, or, in many instances, simple shock cinema.
My rating: D+