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Mysterious Skin

Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A+
Video/Audio/Extras: A-/B-/F

Directed by: Gregg Araki
Written by: Gregg Araki
Based on the book by: Scott Heim
Produced by: Gregg Araki, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Mary Jane Skalski
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it

Gregg Araki has never been afraid of controversy. His dark and disturbing Nowhere was a clever parable about the dangers of perfection, filled with uncompromising gallows humour and gut wrenching violence. The Doom Generation was a similarly bleak, nihilistic portrait of a world obsessed with superficiality and surface beauty, which once more assaulted the viewer non-stop with images of drug abuse, dirty sex and horrific close ups of warm puddles of vomit.

Now personally, I do not believe in using the term 'growing up' to describe a filmmaker who eventually shies away from violence and gore and instead chooses to adopt subtler methods to provoke some sort of emotional or intellectual response from his or her audience. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of a better way to describe the sudden change in Araki's style between the bleak nihilism of Nowhere and the subtle, shocking beauty of Mysterious Skin. It seems unbelievable that the very filmmaker who has so disgusted us in the past with his borderline exploitational tales of underage sex and violence could write and direct a film of such moving power.

Nevertheless it's fair to say, Araki had some help along the way. His source material, a slim book written by American novelist Scott Heim, was so powerful and moving it would've been hard to turn it into a really awful film. Detailing the relationship between two teenage boys haunted by a disturbing past they cannot understand nor address, by the time I had finished the novel I was literally in tears. But Araki not only adapts the book: he improves on it. Like no director before him, the twisted auteur translates the novel not only literally, but stylistically as well. The film is not a blow by blow account of the novel. Instead the feel of the source text has been masterfully created by Araki cinematically, using the mise en scene as well as art direction. For example, to capture the sense of wide eyed innocence so prevalent in the novel, Araki uses subjective P.O.V. shots almost constantly, throwing the audience off their feet at ever turn. Characters often speak directly to camera creating an uneasy tension in the film that took centre stage in the book.

Having read the book before seeing the film, I was initially annoyed by severe changes to certain characters. Eric Preston for example, a good friend of one of the film's central players, is reduced to little more than a two-dimensional cut out, thanks to Araki's severe cuts. In the novel Preston was given a voice: he even got to narrate certain sections of the action. But in the film, he takes a back seat to the two main characters: Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levvitt) and Brian Lackey (Brian Forbes). As mentioned before, this annoyed me initially. Why was such a prominent character in the book reduced to such a minor stand in? But it didn't take me long to realise what was going on. Whereas the book constantly shifted perspective (almost half a dozen different characters narrate throughout the novel) Araki's film takes a much tighter, intimate view. Suddenly the film is not about a whole host of characters. Instead it is a simple, powerful tale of two very damaged human beings.

But despite my claims above that Mysterious Skin is a lighter tale than some of Araki's other films, viewers should not walk into the movie under false pretences. Just as in the novel, the main focus of the proceedings is paedophilia and how two very different people react to it in two very different ways. Araki doesn't protect the audience from scenes of child abuse. Almost within the first half hour, the film's cheerful and friendly pederast, Coach, is introduced to us. Neither does the film avoid one of the more challenging ideas of the novel: that Neil initially enjoys being abused by the dark paedophile.

But like the book, from the shocking storyline a simple beauty emerges. Unlike Nowhere and The Doom Generation, both of which ended rather unhappily for the central protagonists, Mysterious Skin is ultimately uplifting. The film may indeed be a study of the darkness of men's hearts and how one act of sexual violence can alter us forever. But at the same time, Neil and Brian's final meeting is beautifully subtle. The two reconnect in a broken down living room where years before they were both sexually abused. And as they lie on the dark couch in a darkened living room, the quiet chords of Sigur Ros' "Samskeyti" subtly emerging on the sound track, the film transcends to another level. We as the audience realise the pain Neil and Brian have been through. But suddenly we see something else. Something beautiful. As the two characters embrace, Brian bleeding quietly from his nose and Neil staring off into the distance, his eyes glazed, we realise that these two characters might just have found some kind of redemption. Nevertheless this is no Stephen Spielberg type melodrama. Instead the film takes an indirect approach to move the audience. Instead of Artificial Intelligence for example, a movie that assaults its viewers non-stop with images of sap and beauty, Mysterious Skin is not afraid to tackle darkness and despair. Yes, Brian and Neil have been irreversibly damaged. But within each other, they find a strength like nothing else in the world. And by the time the credits roll, the film has taken on a beautiful power not unlike the final short paragraph of the original text: 'There, in front of [me] stood the family, their outlines barely visible within the weight of the room's light. It was a light that shone over our faces, our wounds and scars. It was a light so brilliant and white it could have been beamed from heaven and Brian and I could have been angels, basking in it.

But it wasn't. And we weren't.'

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