Must Hear Music
Reviews Archives
Bargain Basement
Music DVD
Send Us Mail
Contact Us


Tartan Films USA/TLT Releasing

Official Site

Director: Gregg Araki

Producers: Gregg Araki, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Mary Jane Skalski

Written by: Gregg Araki; from the novel by Scott Heim

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, Bill Sage


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’ empty provocations.

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.

—Vadim Rizov

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

Mike Doughty

none now

South By Southwest 2014
David DeVoe

South By Southwest 2013
David DeVoe

Red Hook Music Festival
George Dow

SXSW 2012
David DeVoe

Our Favorite Records 2011
Hybrid Staff

Rachel Fredrickson

Rachel Fredrickson

Warped Tour 2011
Rachel Fredrickson

Eddie Spaghetti
Melissa Skrbic-Huss

Murder By Death
Mike DeLeo

Mike Doughty
Boulder, CO

Denver, CO

Imagine Dragons
Denver, CO

Cambridge, MA

Young Magic
Denver, CO

Warped Tour 2012
Denver, CO

Denver, CO

Mike Doughty
Denver, CO

Kansas City, MO

Other Lives
Lawrence, KS

Los Campesinos
Boston, MA

The Civil Wars
Lawrence, KS

Ha Ha Tonka
Lawrence, KS

Lawrence, KS

hybridmagazine.com is updated daily except when it isn't.
New film reviews are posted every week like faulty clockwork.
Wanna write for hybrid? Send us an e-mail.
© 1996-2009 [noun] digital media. All rights reserved worldwide. All content on hybridmagazine.com and levelheadedmusic.com is the intellectual property of Hybrid Magazine and its respective creators. No part of hybridmagazine.com or levelheadedmusic.com may be reproduced in any format without expressed written permission. For complete masthead and physical mailing address, Click Here.