A Review Of
2004, 105 mins, UK: 18 (US: NC-17)
Mysterious Skin is a hard-hitting coming-of-age movie, written and directed by Gregg Araki, and based on the novel by Scott Heim. Set in a small rural town in Kansas, this movie follows the lives of two young men who come together and discover the horrible truths from their past.
It features some well-know cast members, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer), and Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
Due to the nature of the plot, there isn't much I can say without revealing major spoilers.
I'll try my best to avoid them, but there may still be minor spoilers.
"The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life.
Five hours, lost, gone without a trace..."
With this - the opening line of the film - the character of Brian is introduced. We see him sitting against the wall of his cellar, his nose bleeding, crying. He has no memory of the events leading up to this point, or how he got there. This is to be a vital element in the entire movie - when he gets older, it is this gap in his memory that drives Brian to seek the truth behind those missing hours in his life.
When he is found, Brian's mother puts it down to an injury received from playing baseball with his little-league team and, though Brian doesn't correct her, it is obvious that this is not the case. On top of this, he regularly has nightmares featuring strange figures running their alien-like hands across his face, as he lies on a cold, metal table.
"The summer I was eight years old, I came for the first time."
And with this line (blunt and to the point, in contrast with the mystery of the first one) comes the introduction of young Neil (played by Chase Ellison). We see him kneeling on his bed, masturbating as he looks out the window at his mother pleasuring her boyfriend on the swing set. The contrast between the two characters is immediately obvious.
The movie flashes back to earlier in the summer. Neil's mother has signed him up for the little-league team, so she would have time to spend with her boyfriend.
Seeing as the rest of the team seem to have little or no skill in baseball, Neil quickly becomes the star player, and a favourite of the coach. He start to spend more and more time with the coach, and they make friends, though the coach's motives are obviously more sinister than they appear at first.
At Halloween, we meet Wendy, Neil's best friend and as he puts it, "soul mate". Together, as partners in crime, they wander around the neighbourhood in search of mischief. It is on this night that Wendy learns Neil's biggest secret, and an unbreakable bond is forged.
They remain friends as they grow older, and we see Neil grown and mature, finding his way in life. The movie focuses on the path he takes to deal with his past, and the way his and Brian's fates are intertwined. Will his choices lead him to trouble, or will he be strong enough to overcome his past and, in turn, help Brian discover the truth behind his?
Wendy (Trachtenberg) and Neil (Gordon-Levitt)
The first thing you see as the opening credits play is a cascade of multi-coloured pieces of cereal falling from somewhere off-screen, in front of a crisp white background. The camera pans down to reveal the face of a young boy, the cereal bouncing off of his face and breaking against his skin, sending crumbs tumbling down his face. It's colourful and clear, and it should feel like a happy, joyful scene.
But for some reason it doesn't - there's an underlying sense of unease surrounding it. And this feeling sticks around for most of the movie.
This atmosphere owes a lot to the sounds and music. The music in this movie is perfect for the subject material - at times it's eerie and unsettling, giving you a sense of discomfort, and at other times it's carefree and softly upbeat, making everything seem safe and alright. It builds the mood perfectly, no matter what the situation is - a feat that not a lot of films can manage so easily.
I think among my favourite things about this movie is the setting. It's set in a small town in Kansas and, though I've never been there myself, it's exactly as I imagine it would be. Children are free to wander around without the fear of abduction that we have today, and the streets have a distinct "sleepy" feel to them. There's a definite sense of "everybody knows everybody" and this, to me, makes everything feel that bit more real - more involving. Combine all this with the warm, soft colours of a (mostly) summer setting, and it's almost hard to restrain yourself from buying a plane ticket to Kansas right away. It might not sound like much, but I don't think the movie would have been quite as good without all of this.
Now, I won't dance around this fact - this film is quite graphic. It revolves around matters of strong sexuality, and it's not afraid to throw this in your face. There is sex (the main character's profession ensures this), there is violence (sometimes both at the same time), and they touch upon controversial subjects, such as paedophilia, homosexuality, and rape.
If you are easily offended or squeamish, I would not recommend watching this movie. But it's this blunt and honest approach to sexuality that drives the story. I don't think the message would have been conveyed half as well if it had been approached in a more viewer-friendly way.
Neil (Gordon-Levitt), and Brian (Corbet)
As for the characters themselves, there are good points and bad points. While they all have their own distinct personalities and motivations, they always feels real - possible. The actors played their parts brilliantly (the child actors, for example, did an amazing job), making them seem all the more believable. You can easily imagine meeting characters like these in real life and not finding it odd. They all react to their situations like you would yourself, and interact well with each other.
On the other hand, there is very little in the way of character growth. All of them are, more or less, the same at the end of the movie as they were at the beginning. Though they do grow and mature a little, it's barely noticeable unless you look hard for it.
Another slight problem I have with this movie is that some of the lines seem just a little bit cheesy. It's not a big problem, and it doesn't take from the overall quality of the movie, but when one of these lines does come up it's hard not to let out a little groan of disgust. Other than that the script is fine, and the story moves along fluidly. It's well-paced for the most part, save the occasional drawn-out patch. But these are few and far between.
You will be drawn into the two storylines (one more interesting than the other, I found), and you'll grow to love the characters - be it the always caring Wendy, or the stereotype-gay that is Eric.
I have to say, I loved this movie - it was engaging and enjoyable to watch. It's one of those films that you're glad you found. It would definitely have be a shame to miss out on what is now one of my favourite movies. If you're not afraid of it's graphic nature, I would recommend - nay, insist - that you watch it. It really does deserve your time and attention, which is more than I can say for a lot of films nowadays.
I would appreciate any comments and criticisms you may have - on either the film, or on the review itself - and I'm happy to answer any questions.
Thank you for reading. =]