Part of Gregg Araki must surely resent being deemed
newly “mature” by critics everywhere, as if his entire
’90s body of work was the negligible work of an angry young
provocateur. Unfortunately, that’s basically fair: In movies
like The Doom Generation, Araki played with facile nihilism
and sexual gamesmanship in moderately repugnant ways, valuing ingenious
lighting schemes over anything remotely sympathetic. His movies
tried to indict the world even as they threatened it: Even as The
Doom Generation attempted ending up as a sobering indictment
of homophobia and mindless, quasi-fascist American patriotism, its
end credits threatened to kill anybody caught pirating the film.
Technical skill wasn’t enough to make up for the films’
Still, the seeds of the new Araki are visible in the old one.
In Mysterious Skin, Araki returns to the subcultures which
his films once sought to be a defining part of: His characters still
listen to shoegazer music (the soundtrack is littered with Slowdive,
Ride, and other early ’90s holdovers, basically the
same line-up as Doom), dress like Goths, and hate the suburbs.
Which is eminently appropriate, because Skin—set
over a period stretching the decade from 1981 to 1991—revisits
the time just before Araki started making movies. The film—about
the traumatic, formative years of two young men—is as much
about the formation of Araki’s aesthetic as anything.
What Mysterious Skin deals with is the legacy of sexual
violence and how it affects two young men: Neil (Gordon-Levitt)
and Bill (Corbet), both teammates on a Little League
team long ago, and both tracked over intercut segments for 10 years
until their paths finally cross again. When they first emerge, in
1981, Bill is going through an awkward gawky childhood, defined
by oversized glasses and poor gamesmanship; meanwhile, young Gordon-Levitt
(played by Chase Ellison) is the team’s star
player, and becomes the coach’s (Hal Hartley
veteran Bill Sage) object of affection over the
course of summer. Which is to say that he’s molested repeatedly—the
first time without knowing what’s going on, and then participating
enthusiastically, even being used as a prop to seduce other boys.
Neil grows into a teen hustler, while Bill never leaves his awkward
boyhood behind; he grows into an equally gawky 19-year-old, still
living at home, still wearing dorky glasses and ill-fitting button-down
shirts. After losing five hours of his boyhood in a blackout, he
becomes obsessed with the conviction that he must have been captured
by aliens, who appear in his dreams as clues. Eventually, though,
the clues lead him back to Gordon-Levitt.
The final narrative revelation of what really happened to Bill
isn’t especially surprising, nor does it seem meant to be.
Mysterious Skin derives its power not from sudden revelations,
but from the steady accretion of details, starting with its pitch-perfect
evocation of period. In 1981, the coach and Neil’s first “date”
of sorts is a trip to see the slasher flick Blood Prom,
followed by a return to the coach’s house, an adolescent wonderland
with an Atari 2600, Frogger, etc. Even on what’s probably
a minimal budget, the effect is awesomely nostalgic. Though the
production design becomes less visibly rooted in the past as it
leaps to its conclusion (probably because re-creating New York in
the early ’90s, where Neil ends up, is probably far more expensive
than emulating ’80s suburbs), the story is definitely rooted
in the atmosphere and consequences of the past, an already ossified
era Araki obviously has great fondness for. Neil matures early sexually,
and seems to spend all of his time outrunning AIDS; while turning
tricks, nearly every one of his encounters begins with a pick-up
that seems, every time, like the appearance of a potential sexual
predator. When he’s finally assaulted and raped, it’s
heartbreaking but seemingly inevitable.
Araki still lights his movies exquisitely, and Mysterious
Skin is perfectly designed and formally confident all the way
through. What’s new is the non-facile compassion, as Araki
sensitively guides his child actors through traumatic territory.
Skin falters a number of times—in occasionally clunky,
lifted-from-the-novel dialogue (“where most people have a
heart, he has a black hole”), or in the characterization of
Neil’s father (demonized for being a sports-loving suburban
dad, and implicitly homophobic—he gets less sympathy than
the pedophile coach). But it’s a work of remarkable power,
one that early on plunges in the purest drama and keeps raising
the emotional stakes. It’s a rare film, one where shouting
and confrontation and crying don’t just seem like actorly
showpieces, but appropriate and heart-wrenching actions. Like recent
films The Woodsman and L.I.E., here too is a refusal
to make the pedophile a one-dimensional monster—but a closer
comparison is to Tarnation. The focus, there too, is on
those being molested, not the molester, and the same disturbing
implication comes through: For better or worse, the effect of molestation
isn’t always purely negative.