CAPSULE: MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)

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FEATURING: , Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeffrey Licon, Elizabeth Shue, Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Chase Ellison, George Webster

PLOT: Brian, who is missing memories from part of his childhood, believes that he was abducted by aliens; his investigations lead him to Neal, a street hustler who may have had a similar experience.

Still from Mysterious Skin (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This searing and graphic drama about two damaged boys and their opposite approaches to dealing with trauma is Gregg Araki’s masterpiece, his best movie by a wide margin. Ironically, however, it’s also his least weird film, with only a few dreamlike moments thrown in to relieve the harsh reality.

COMMENTS: Alternating stories in the lives of two former Little League teammates, one now a teenage hustler and the other a UFO-abduction fanatic, Mysterious Skin plays something like Midnight Cowboy with a touch of “The X-Files.” The performances of both young leads are astounding, and it’s actually a little unfortunate that Brady Corbet’s turn as nerdy, asexual Brian is overshadowed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (literally) sexier performance as a prematurely dissipated teenage prostitute. Gordon-Levitt’s role interacting with the various johns, from lonely middle-aged businessmen to touchingly pathetic AIDS sufferers to the inevitable angry sadist, is simply meatier than Corbet’s, who only spars sexually with a frumpy fellow alien-abduction enthusiast. Gordon-Levitt, in his first major part after concluding his run as an alien inhabiting the body of a precocious kid in the sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun,” announces himself here as one of the great upcoming actors of his generation in his dark performance as a cocky boy-stud who isn’t nearly as in control of his life as he believes himself to be. Each kid has a very different character arc, but they have more in common than it seems. The story’s big “secret” will probably become obvious very quickly, but the drama doesn’t come in the mystery of the big reveal. This is more of a dual character study depicting opposite but equally dysfunctional strategies for dealing with the unthinkable. It’s difficult to watch at times, but it’s played with exceptional compassion and insight that steers well away from survivor clichés—the hustler’s story, in particular, reveals a disturbing but credibly sick psychology. Scenes with cornfed Kansas grotesques finding mutilated cattle with their genitals removed make the Midwest look a little Lynchian; but, other than a misty shot of a Fruit Loop shower and hallucinatory glimpses of an actual UFO, Akari makes very few departures from raw reality here. The supporting performances are all excellent, as is the unobtrusive shoegaze score. This is filmmaking at its most humanistic.

Araki wrote the Mysterious Skin screenplay from Scott Heim’s novel. According to a Heim interview included on the Blu-Ray edition, the director consulted the original author on the adaptation, although Heim decided to get out of the way and not meddle unless asked after the contract was signed. Heim was then invited to tour with the cast and crew as they took the film on the festival circuit. The dynamic between the original author and the adapter here appears to be a model working relationship.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film has a weird buoyancy…”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tori.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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