Inner Space: Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin”
by Erik Syngle with responses by Suzanne Scott and Kristi Mitsuda
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
Full of assaultive punk attitude and armed with an arsenal of hip music and film references that could be momentarily arresting yet didn’t always add up to much, Gregg Araki’s string of sensationalist low-budget New Queer Cinema features in the Nineties aren’t very fondly remembered outside of Film Studies classes — and perhaps they weren’t meant to be. Araki’s aggressive, militantly queer, often violent and violently stylized movies were an inspiration to some, and purposefully alienating to others. Then he made a warm and funny little romantic comedy about a live-in MFM threesome called “Splendor” (1999) that might have been more subversive, honest, and optimistic in its treatment of “alternative lifestyles” than his overtly political work. Was it just a fluke?
It’s taken a long time to find out the answer (and in the meantime I may have forgotten why I wanted to know), but “Mysterious Skin” proves that, contrary to any reasonable expectations, Araki has matured. Based on a 1995 novel by Scott Heim, it’s Araki’s first film to come from a source other than his own original script, which suggests that perhaps all he ever needed was someone else’s material to help give shape to his real but undisciplined talent. At the same time, it manages to incorporate most of his familiar trademarks: aliens, teenage angst, jailbait TV stars, and loads of sex. What it adds, most notably, are the twin excellent lead performances of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet and an authentic sense of place (Hutchinson, Kansas) as opposed to his usual shoestring L.A. “nowhere.”
Playing two former Little League teammates who never actually meet until the film’s powerful final minutes, Gordon-Levitt’s Neil McCormick and Corbet’s Brian Lackey show the divergent paths taken by victims of the same pedophilic baseball coach. While Lackey has mostly repressed his memories and converted what remains into an obsessive fantasy of alien abduction that he spends his young adult life pursuing, McCormick remembers, even treasures, the experiences, which ironically seem like an idyllic past compared to his later life as a jaded and self-destructive hustler who moves to New York.
The working-class Midwest setting is handled with refreshingly less condescension and horror than is typical in American indies of this sort, which is to say that its people are not all exposed as secret perverts, raging hypocrites, or brain-dead slugs by the end. (This is no doubt due to the fact that Scott Heim is from the real Hutchinson.) I did start to worry when Brian’s overprotective mom blew away a row of soda bottles with a pistol, but fortunately it came to nothing. Perhaps I’ve just been conditioned by too many hateful Todd Solondz movies, but it’s such a relief to see a character with oversized wire rim glasses turn out not to be a monster. In fact it’s the denizens of the Big Apple who turn out to be the real horrors here, the sick and violent johns that Neil picks up contrasted with the lonely and harmless tricks he turned back home.
Undoubtedly, it’s the discovery of actual characters — as opposed to just bodies with mouthpieces — that has helped Araki’s cinema immensely, as it did Hal Hartley, Atom Egoyan, and other once-hot and once-young, independent filmmakers. Here, both of Araki’s characters manage to be completely plausible psychologically and conform to the known patterns of childhood abuse without ever seeming like caseworker studies and while still leaving room for ambiguity. There’s a careful avoidance of the language of victimhood (especially surprising given Araki’s “The Living End” which typified the era’s nihilistic view towards AIDS and sent its protagonists out on a self-abnegating death-trip) from either of the two characters or the film itself. Neil’s matter-of-fact acceptance (“It happened. There was no point pretending it didn’t.”), the coach’s disconcertingly genuine charm and likability, combined with the unhysterically directed, even tender molestation sequences, make this one of the least explicitly condemning of any film on the subject. I like to think it’s because Araki knows by now that we can fill that part in for ourselves.
[Erik Syngle is a co-founder of Reverse Shot and has also written for Film Comment.]
By Suzanne Scott
Gregg Araki’s films have a tendency to provoke love ’em or loathe ’em reactions, and even those who fall into the former category typically cling more to their appreciation of the ballsy auteur’s intentions than they do his execution. “Mysterious Skin,” Araki’s soft-focus ode to pedophilia and its psychosexual fallout, is unfortunately not the exception to canonic rule it strives to be, disturbing only in that it’s mired in a host of bland recyclables doused in a candy-coated suburban aesthetic with a predictably marred underbelly where coming-of-age really does mean exactly that in the most perverse sense. Shockingly, the unsettling material does little to provoke anything other than the occasional eye roll or uncomfortable shift in one’s seat, leaving one to revel at the unmined potential as the film concludes with a mad dash to shove every hackneyed cinematic trope into one final shot that staunchly refuses anything resembling insight into the film’s dual protagonists.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been heralded for his turn as teen hustler Neil, and rightly so — he alone seems to possess the innate ability to balance Araki’s unwieldy platter of quixotic regret, though it’s not for a lack of trying by the rest of the able cast. Neil is the definition of enigmatic: unapologetic in his choice of profession and of his lingering love for the man who abused him, masked under brooding stares and long drags off of his cigarette. There is one blink of stunned innocence in Neil’s eyes the first time one of his johns forces a condom on him, which slides so quickly back into the smug stare of power regained that one promptly forgets the wide-eyed child that remains trapped inside the primal pleasure seeker. It’s in these quiet moments that the film redeems itself, only to bluster back with paint-by-numbers escalation. Mounting flashbacks to those late nights with the Little League baseball coach? Check. Neil eventually turning the wrong trick to brutally violent results? Check. Wink-Nudge homage to “Psycho”‘s shower scene during said rape? Done, though not done well.
Like the aliens that serve as a go-to psychological block for Neil’s partner-in-abuse, what begins as an unfathomable act of exploitation performed on two diametrically opposed boys slowly becomes a void of suburban legend that explores its topic with equal parts curiosity and ambivalence. Araki does deserve a modicum of credit for offering up a far more multifaceted version of the current circus mentality swirling about issues of abuse, but the end result is something like a scar from an supposed alien experiment — real enough to touch but difficult to invest in.
[Suzanne Scott is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]
by Kristi Mitsuda
There’s always been a grating glossiness to Gregg Araki’s movies. Self-conscious coolness and pop sensibility devoid of deeper resonance mar past endeavors like “Splendor” and “The Doom Generation,” whose precise framing and aesthetically pleasing palettes went a long way towards voicing the director’s celebratory reclamation of the sexually marginalized. But, coasting on the surface sheen of provocative hypotheses alone, such renderings came off as vapid misfit chic masquerading as trenchant social observation.
With the luminous “Mysterious Skin,” Araki lets go of the hip posturing and finally captures the beating heart of his outsiders. Bringing into focus two boys obscurely connected, the film’s delineation of the divergent paths their lives take, in subconscious response to the trauma of being molested as children, is wrought with painstaking complexity. While Neil inherits a penchant for older men, a rapacious desire for hustling suited to his laconic muscularity, and a black abyss where his heart should be (as his best friend describes it), Brian invents a substitute narrative involving extraterrestrial abduction and withdraws so far into himself that he casts a peculiarly asexual aura.
Taking an admirably, if discomfitingly confrontational visual stance on darkly disturbing subject matter from which one reflexively shrinks, Araki films these fragile creatures in extreme close-ups and with an unblinking gaze which compels the spectator to share in his variously bleak and beautiful view. Pausing on highly personal moments — the intimate split second before a kiss, the perplexing vulgarity of mastication, indecision ordering a sub sandwich — the director pulls us into the disquieting territory of the familiar made strange, an interesting flip side to his characteristic normalizing of the unconventional. Managing to portray alienation without alienating, he eliminates the distance between “us” and “them” so successfully that by “Mysterious Skin”‘s cautiously hopeful end, we feel close enough for an embrace.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and maintains the blog artflickchick.]