Mysterious Skin (2004)

Mysterious Skin first published by Movie Gazette

Hutchinson, Kansas. In the summer of 1981, eight-year old Brian (George Webster) is sitting in the rain at a Little League game. Fives hours later he wakes at home, with no idea how he got there – and from then on his life is plagued with nosebleeds, bedwetting, nightmares and blackouts. In the same summer, Neil (Chase Ellison), also eight but far more precocious, is lured all too willingly into a relationship with his Little League coach (Bill Sage). Ten years later, awkward, asexual Brian (Brady Corbet) is convinced that in his missing five hours he was abducted by aliens, while cocky Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sells himself to older men and cannot resist courting danger. As Brian’s investigations lead him to Neil, both come to realise that they are deluded about their past.

Director Gregg Araki is quoted as saying that he wanted Mysterious Skin to be “incredibly beautiful and lush” as a contrast to the darkness of the subject matter. Sure enough, right from its title sequence, in which a blurred image of drifting colours gradually resolves into a cascade of Fruit Loops showering upon a delighted young boy’s head (in a faithful recreation of the image on the cover of Scott Heim’s original 1995 novel), the film is endowed with an arresting visual lyricism that takes Araki some distance from the punkish hyperreality of his best known films from the nineties (The Living End, Totally F***ed Up and The Doom Generation).

Araki has also coaxed standout performances from his young actors. Corbet makes Brian’s nerdy vulnerability almost tangible – a portrayal that is all the more daring for its potential to unravel the bankable status of teen heartthrob that Corbet had acquired from his previous, far less challenging lead rôle in Thunderbirds. Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced mix of dark sexuality with naïve bravado would easily command an Oscar if only this film were less probing into areas of human behaviour that the Academy considers taboo. Perhaps bravest of all, though, is the way Araki allows the Coach’s predatory behaviour to speak for itself, without further requiring Bill Sage to gurn and guffaw like some demonic tabloid version of a paedophile.

Like those raining blobs of colour cereal that come into focus only slowly during the opening credits, Mysterious Skin follows a trajectory from obscurity to clarity. First it establishes a childhood narrative with an important piece missing, then it seeks to solve this puzzle with an ill-fitting allegorical fantasy about aliens, before finally inserting some hard and painful reality into the plot’s hole. Yet if the film has a fault, it is Araki’s ham-fisted handling of this structure, making it far too obvious from the very beginning what has happened in Brian’s lost hours. The revelation that comes at the end is not so much resolving a mystery as filling in all the blow-by-blow details.

It is, however, Araki’s maturest film to date – and it certainly puts Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in a new light.

Summary: Gregg Araki’s quasi sci-fi is a very adult film about two children’s lives irreversibly changed by a ‘close encounter’.

Anton Bitel