Saturday, May 21, 2005

Review - Mysterious Skin

How many people saw this coming? Gregg Araki is the director responsible for some of the most shallow, immature and nauseating films of the 90’s, with such puerile efforts as Nowhere, The Doom Generation and Totally Fucked Up. Araki was at the forefront of the ‘new queer cinema’ movement which emerged in the early part of the decade but his angry and often incoherent films lacked the skill and insight of some of his compatriots, such as Todd Haynes or Gus Van Sant. Mysterious Skin, Araki’s latest film, seems to promise more of the same. After all, it is another tale of disaffected, sexually ambiguous teenagers trying to find their place in the world, it’s shot with Araki’s typical flair and it contains a number of shockingly violent sequences.

But Mysterious Skin is something else entirely, a quantum leap forward from Araki’s previous work. It’s the first time Araki has adapted his screenplay from another source, in this case Scott Heim’s novel, which may explain why his characterisations are so much richer, and his screenplay so much more grounded, than usual.

The plot takes place in a small Kansas town and revolves around two young men named Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet). They don’t know each other, but they are connected. Ten years previously, at the age of eight, the pair both played for the local softball team in which the confident Neil was the best player and the sensitive, bookish Brian was the worst. That summer, they were both molested by the team’s paedophile coach (Bill Sage) and their differing reaction to this incident is where the drama of Mysterious Skin lies.

Neil has become a gay prostitute, hustling older men who hang around the local derelict playground, while Brian cannot remember anything from the five hours of his ordeal and has started to believe that he was abducted by aliens. He has been investigating his mysterious past and putting together clues from his dreams, which eventually leads him to Neil’s door.

Much of Mysterious Skin’s content is tough to digest and Araki’s presentation of these sequences is uncompromising. The scenes in which the young Neil is being ‘groomed’ by the predatory coach are sensitively handled and extremely powerful. Likewise, later scenes which deal with Neil’s prostitution are uncomfortable viewing (“Make me happy” groans an elderly man who simply wants Neil to caress his AIDS-afflicted skin), and one depiction of a brutal rape is almost unwatchable. But there is also a rare beauty present in Mysterious Skin; Araki coats his film in a golden light and adds some welcome scenes of surreal beauty, only a couple of which seem heavy-handed.

Central to the film’s success is the quality of the ensemble cast. As Neil, Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominates the picture with a revelatory display. The young actor, best-known from TV sitcom Third Rock From the Sun, exudes a brash arrogance and cynicism and his snake-hipped charm is perfect for the role. One of Neil’s friends remarks that “where most people have a heart, Neil McCormick has a black hole”, but it’s clear that his posturing, unfeeling demeanour masks a sensitivity and longing for human warmth (he describes the paedophile coach as the only person who ever really loved him). Brady Corbet is equally impressive as the confused Brian, whose dawning realisation of that night is movingly depicted. Michelle Trachtenberg and Jeff Licon make an impression as Neil’s closest friends while Bill Sage is remarkable as the enigmatic coach (we never learn his real name, only knowing as much as the kids know about him).

The film slowly develops a complete picture of the abuse these boys suffered and the effects it has had on their lives, building to a cathartic, transcendent climax. Araki’s direction is subtle, intelligent and brave, and with Mysterious Skin he has finally delivered a film which matches compassion and emotion to his visual style. The characters of Neil and Brian may be forever scarred by the events of their youth, and a part of them may always be stuck at the age of eight, but Gregg Araki has finally grown up.