Joseph Gordon-Levitt……….Neil McCormick
Brady Corbet……….Brian Lackey
Elisabeth Shue……….Mrs. McCormick
Mary Lynn Rajskub………Avalyn Friesen
Bill Sage……….Coach Heider
Lisa Long……….Mrs. Lackey
Tartan Films and TLA Releasing present Mysterious Skin. Based on a novel by Scott Heim. Running time: 99 minutes. Unrated.
For all the talk Brokeback Mountain has been getting of late, you’d think the topic of homosexuality had never been depicted in cinema before. But it’s not just the idea of two men in love that is stirring up controversy; it’s the way it is being presented on screen. The same can be said for Mysterious Skin, a new film by Gregg Araki. Most notably known for the low budget satire The Doom Generation, Araki delivers his most compelling work to date: a drama about child abuse and its lingering influence on two children.
At the beginning of the film a small boy says, “The summer I was 8 years old, five hours disappeared from my life.” He remembers the Little League game where it started to rain, and the next thing he can recall is being found hiding in his basement at home; blood from a nosebleed had stained his shirt. For the next ten years this boy would continue to have blackouts and nosebleeds and dream about that rainy night.
This boy’s name is Brian Lackey. His hair is disheveled and the glasses he wears are much too big for his face. He’s shy and withdrawn. When Brian is 18 the glasses seem to fit him just fine, but the awkwardness is still there.
Neil McCormick was a teammate of Brian’s back in Little League. As an only child his promiscuous mother pretty much left him in the care of his baseball coach (Bill Sage). This didn’t bother Neil, as his coach looked like one of those guys in all the Playgirl magazines his mom kept hidden underneath the bed. So for the summer of 1981, the coach and Neil have a love affair. Neil was willing and enthusiastic about the relationship as he was enamored with the coach ever since the two were first introduced on the baseball field. Years later Neil matures into a gay hustler, who is content to turning tricks in the city park.
Gregg Araki takes his time allowing the two stories to play out as he crosscuts between each boy’s journey through adolescence and self-discovery; he is also comfortable lingering on some more disconcerting aspects. Any movie about child abuse is not for the weak of heart, especially if the abuse is sexually motivated. That’s what makes Mysterious Skin such a harrowing experience. Araki pulls no punches when showing the malicious beating and rape the teenage Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) endures by one of his “johns”. The aftereffects include a busted lip, bruises and swelling on his chest and back, and a bitter taste of reality.
That being said, the sexual acts aren’t played out for gratuitous decadence, as the director handles this adaptation of Scott Heim’s semi-autobiographical novel with the utmost sensitivity. In the scenes with the child actors who play Brian and Neil – George Webster and Chase Ellison, respectively – Araki was careful, only showing what needed to be seen, and letting us visualize the rest.
While Brady Corbet (Thirteen) is compelling as the 18-year-old Brian Lackey – totally immersing himself in the role – it is Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Neil McCormick that is the most engaging and sad at times. Much like Brian, his character is detached ever since that summer. Unlike Brian, though, Neil remembers everything that transpired. Those treasured moments with the coach had a powerful effect on the dangerous direction Neil’s sexual lifestyle would take. He has a willingness to do anything his customers want. That’s why some scenes involve johns performing fellatio or him getting stoned. But the tenderest moment is Neil’s encounter with a dying AIDS victim. “This is going to be the safest encounter you’ve ever had,” the john says. “If you just rub my back. I really need to be touched.”
Besides Gordon-Levitt’s breakthrough role, Mysterious Skin has some great acting by the supporting cast. Bill Sage may only have ten minutes of screen time, but as the baseball coach it is his character that ultimately influences each boy’s characteristics. Michelle Trachtenberg as Wendy is Neil’s closest friend. She is summed up nicely in Levitt’s narration: “That summer [when I was eight], I met Wendy. If I wasn’t queer, we’d have probably ended up having sloppy teenage sex, gettin’ pregnant and just contributing more “effed” up people to the world.” She loves Neil but worries that his lifestyle will get him hurt, or worse yet, killed. Jeffrey Licon as Eric is Neil’s friend, who is also gay, but the two never have sex or even talk of the possibility. His strongest trait is curiosity. Curious about people and how they interact. Eric becomes Brian’s closest friend after the two have a chance encounter in front of Neil’s house. Both attend Hutchinson Community College and Brian feels confidant in telling Eric about his nightmares of a mysterious being (an alien, perhaps?) and a boy lying next to him on a smooth surface.
When the film reaches its staggering climax, due in large part by Eric’s relationships with both Neil and Brian, the two boys meet and their realities about what happened that rainy night many years ago come together. The result is a story that is both difficult and challenging to watch. Gregg Araki’s film is an emotional roller coaster where at the core of the story is two boys who grow through the hate of child abuse and must live with its fears and terrors everyday.
VIDEO: How does it look?
(Presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen)
The transfer looks great for the most part, but there are some artifact issues in a few scenes – most notably in the scenes where Neil is doing work as play-by-play commentator at Little League baseball games. Cinematographer Steve Gainer has a wonderful eye and attention to detail as he gives the nighttime sequences a dreamlike quality by placing emphasis on the color blue.
AUDIO: How does it sound?
(English Dolby 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1)
What better way to listen to Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie’s eloquent musical score than in DTS 5.1 surround sound? The Dolby Digital is near the size and scope of the DTS track, but doesn’t quite provide the atmospheric clarity. Gregg Araki’s Indy rock selections (songs by Slowdive and Sigur Ros, for example) highlight this tragic yet poignant film.
SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by the stars and director, a book reading and trailers.
Tartan Films didn’t include a lot of extras with this release, but what is available is a good example of quality outweighing quantity. We begin with a relaxed, down-to-earth commentary from Gregg Araki, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet. During the conversations Araki talks about how most of the scenes shot were from a subjective POV (point-of-view). So the actor is acting to the camera, not person to person. Another surprising anecdote is about the two kids who played the eight-year-old versions of Neil McCormack and Brian Lackey. The small actors did not have a complete idea of what Mysterious Skin was about. Araki gave the kids a condensed version of the script and took the time to explain to the parents his objective; basically, how the film is tied into the subjectivity of childhood and wonder.
The feature entitled Book reading with Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (54:35) is exactly like it says. After Gregg Araki sets up a video camera on a tripod on some unnamed stretch of sidewalk, the two actors take turns reading passages from Scott Heim’s novel. Actor Brady Corbet begins by describing his character Brian Lackey. Upon listening to Gordon-Levitt read about Neil McCormick, it’s pretty obvious this extra was recorded after Mysterious Skin had finished production. Joseph is almost in character as he exudes Neil’s intensity. In hindsight, this is a fun feature as you can visualize Scott Heim’s novel as the two actors read exposition and different situations. Scott Heim has a way of keeping you interested in the material with alliteration and a narrative similar to that of Charles Bukowski (Ham on Rye) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club).
The only other extras on the DVD are a full-screen theatrical trailer and trailers for these Tartan Films’ releases: 9 Songs, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Ma Mere, and America Brown.