Mysterious Skin (2005): Araki, Again Probing Youth Anomie, Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet (Child Abuse)

After a hiatus and a number of disappointing pictures, Gregg Araki is back on terra ferma with Mysterious Skin, yet another exploration of youth angst and anomie, themes that he had probed in previous, more personal and original films.
Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)
Mysterious Skin
Mysterious skin.jpg

Theatrical release poster

A decent film, with polished production values, “Mysterious Skin” could have been directed by Gus Van Sant, a better filmmaker than Araki, whose best work (“My Own Private Idaho,” “To Die For,” “Elephant”) also examines troubled youth.

I mention Van Sant not in order to put down Araki, but to suggest that there is nothing special or particularly interesting about this film, when placed against the broader context of youth films of the past decade. Both thematically and stylistically, “Mysterious Skin” reflects moviemaking of the 1990s, perhaps a result of the fact that the novel upon which the film is based was published in 1995.

The first sentence, narrated by one of the film’s heroes, immediately suggests that it’s a memory movie. “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life. Five hours, lost, gone without a trace…” These are the words of Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet), a troubled 18 year-old, growing up in the stiflingly small town of Hutchinson, Kansas. Plagued by nightmares, Brian believes that he may have been the victim of an alien abduction.

Enter Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a handsome local resident, who’s the ultimate outsider. Living with his loving but promiscuous mother (Elisabeth Shue), Neil is wise beyond his years and curious about his developing sexuality, having found what he perceived to be love from his Little League baseball coach (played by Hal Hartley veteran Bill Sage) at a very early age.

Now, ten years later, Neil is a teenage hustler, nonchalant about the dangerous path his life is taking. Neil’s pursuit of love leads him to New York City, while Brian’s voyage of self-discovery leads him to Neil, who helps him to unlock the dark secrets of his past.

Based on Scott Heim’s acclaimed novel, “Mysterious Skin” explores the hearts and minds of two very different boys, who come to find the key to their future happiness lies in the exorcism of their collective demons. The story is punctuated with flashbacks of the two protags’ pasts, when they were eight-year-old.

“Mysterious Skin” represents the first time that Araki has adapted someone else’s material for the screen. In the press notes, Araki claims that he had devoted years to making the film, after reading the powerful and moving book. He also acknowledges his doubts about turning the novel into a powerful movie, since the book goes deeper in exploring very challenging subject matter in a raw, unflinching way.

Characteristically, though the subject matter is dark and serious, Araki injects humor whenever it’s appropriate, as for example, in the depiction of Neil’s first trick in New York. Nonetheless, insecure about his treatment of the material, Araki ends up aestheticizing the film to a fault.

In the book, Scott ingeniously incorporates the iconography of suburban childhood, composed of all those little details everybody fondly remembers: celebrating Halloween, the variety packs of cereal, the feeling of being safe in a car when it’s raining outside.

Some of details are deeply engrained in every child’s memory and they make the film’s emotional journey universal. When you remember things that happened to you as a kid, there’s haziness to it. That’s why the beginning of the film is more fragmented and impressionistic. Then as the story unfolds and the characters grow older, the scenes gradually become longer and more concrete.

The other new element is the span of the story. Usually, Araki’s films are set in the present and cover a short but intense period of his characters’ lives. In contrast, “Mysterious Skin” spans a long period of time in the lives of the characters, following their journey from childhood to growing up.

The ending suggests a blend of darkness and light. While the closure is not sugarcoated, it’s also not totally bleak; there’s ray of hope. The film, in fact, ends with a question, and Araki hopes that his movie will break the silence about its taboo subjects.

The original score is composed by ambient music legend Harold Budd and Cocteau Twins genius Robin Guthrie. The film’s dreamy, ethereal tone is inspired by music like theirs. Neither composer had ever created a movie score before.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil McCormick
Chase Ellison as young Neil McCormick
Brady Corbet as Brian Lackey
George Webster as young Brian Lackey
Michelle Trachtenberg as Wendy
Riley McGuire as young Wendy
Jeff Licon as Eric Preston
Mary Lynn Rajskub as Avalyn Friesen
Elisabeth Shue as Ellen McCormick
Bill Sage as Coach
Chris Mulkey and Lisa Long as Mr. and Mrs. Lackey
Richard Riehle as Charlie
Kelly Kruger as Deborah
Rachael Nastassja Kraft as young Deborah
Billy Drago as Zeke


Produced, directed, edited by Gregg Araki
Screenplay by Araki, based on Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Cinematography Steve Gainer
Music by Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie

Production companies: Fortissimo Films, Antidote Films, Desperate Pictures

Release dates: September 3, 2004 (Venice Fest); May 6, 2005 (US)
Running time: 105 minutes
Box office $2.1 million