Movie Review – Mysterious Skin (2004) (aka the most difficult movie I’ve ever had to sit though)

Director: Gregg Araki

Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, Lisa Long,Chris Mulkey, Bill Sage, Jeff Licon, Mary Lynn Rajskub

Mysterious Skin is the most difficult movie I’ve ever had to watch, and not because it’s bad. In fact it’s an excellent film that I have no hesitation in recommending, but it does deal with child abuse and some of the scenes are very graphic. I consider myself to be able to watch films of a graphic nature but with this one I found myself wincing a lot and actually having to turn away, so I think you have to be prepared going in. It’s a rewarding film, and if you can make it through it I don’t think you’ll regret it at all, but I know a lot of people won’t want to watch it, and that’s okay. 

The story follows two boys, Neil (Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Corbet). Neil was the star of his little league team and was seduced and abused by his coach (Sage). Brian has repressed memories of his childhood, and all he remembers is blacking out and then waking up with a nosebleed. He’s convinced that he was abducted by aliens. A few years later Neil whores himself out to older guys for money, while his two best friends Eric (Licon) and Wendy (Trachtenberg) harbour feelings for him. Meanwhile, Brian is obsessed with alien abductions and gets in touch with a fellow abductee Avalyn (Rajskub), who encourages him to try and find out what happened to him when he was younger as the truth will set him free. Brian’s memories lead him to find Neil, and as the two of them are reunited they have to face the reality of their haunted past. 

Mysterious Skin is brilliant and even though it makes for uncomfortable viewing it’s worth it. I think with the glut of film and tv shows and books out there we’ve been desensitized to a lot of things as they’re presented and edited in a way to make them palatable to us. Mysterious Skin pulls no punches but Gregg Araki handles the subject matter with delicacy and maturity. It’s a truly harrowing film that shows the effects of child abuse, and I have to wonder what any survivors of child abuse think of it. 

The main focus is on Neil and his experiences. Through his narration we see that he’s always been attracted to older guys, but the way he speaks about his experiences with the coach is with reverence, as if they shared something special. It’s clear that even though Brian has the more obviously repressed memory, Neil suffers from it too as he’s created this almost fairytale romance, continually claiming that, ‘there were others, but I was his favourite,’ whenever he speaks of that summer. It’s only in the final conversation with Brian when the truth comes out that we see his illusion start to crack, and the horror of what happens finally hits him. Through the film we see his associations with older men, and it seems to me that through them he’s trying to cling onto that summer, perhaps almost as a way to preserve the innocence he felt and to disassociate it from the reality. Although we don’t really see anything explicit in the sex scenes some of them are difficult to watch, especially towards the end. 

Brian’s story is mostly in the background, but his hunt for the truth is very heartfelt. His interactions with Avalyn are strange, and we also feel sympathy for her character as well, especially because it never seems like she’s going to get closure in the way that Brian eventually will. In one disturbing scene they find a deer that has had its blood drained. Avalyn claims that it was the work of aliens, and she tells Brian to feel inside the deer’s body. As his expression changes we see that this act brings back other feelings for him, and it’s only at the end do we realize the significance of the act. In his search for Neil, Brian ends up becoming friends with Eric and I loved the scenes of them bonding. The rest of the cast was really good too but it’s the main two actors that shine, especially Gordon-Levitt. The direction is great as well, managing to generate a range of moods and atmospheres, utilizing an excellent soundtrack to help with this. 

The whole film culminates with the two boys going back to the place where it all began, and as Neil shares what really happened we see the dawn of truth on his face. His voice cracks, and it’s a heartbreaking scene as they both come to terms with what’s happened. I used the word haunting earlier and it’s a perfect word to describe the final moments of the film. 

Mysterious Skin is a movie filled with shocking moments and at times is incredibly difficult to watch. Yet it’s filled with emotion and tension, and through Neil and Brian we feel their pain and anguish at what happened to them. It handles a difficult subject in a mature and respectful way, and doesn’t shy away from showing the effects of these experiences. I know this movie won’t be for everyone but I think you should try and make a serious effort to see it because it is excellent. 

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4 thoughts on “Movie Review – Mysterious Skin (2004) (aka the most difficult movie I’ve ever had to sit though)

  1. I heard this is worth watching for the acting ability of Gordon but it seems like one that I would have to really be in a mood for. Judging from the trailer and premise….it appears to be an extremely tough watch. Your review just stressed that further!

    • Yeah, it is indeed, it’s definitely not something you can just sit down and put on, and when you talk about it it’s a hard sell to people but it’s definitely worth it.

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