Friday, November 11, 2005

Mysterious Skin

Mysterious Skin was one of the most critically acclaimed films of the summer, and now that it's out on DVD, I've finally gotten around to seeing it. The film follows the lives of two teenagers who were molested by their little league coach ten years prior and are each struggling to deal with the ramifications of what they went through. The film's notable for its structure, which follows two completely different plot line until the very end of the film, when our two main characters finally meet and sort through their issues.

The opening sequence of the film, which contrasts the two boys' abuse experiences is really well done, with a nice use of voiceover to convey narrative information. I love the opening shot with Apple Jacks falling down onto young Neil's head, leaving trails of sugar in their wake as they bounce off his hair. Another really striking image is the UFO over Brian's house, an image that remains unexplained in the rest of the film. Either his whole family had a mass hallucination, or there really was a UFO there. But that UFO serves as a crucial character motivator later in the film, regardless of its reality. The scenes with Neil and the coach were getting close to painfully awkward. You know something bad is going to happen, and it's just a matter of waiting for things to go wrong with the relationship.

The twist that the film puts on the abuse scenario is the fact that Neil actually likes the coach and he never considers himself a victim. Even though his experience clearly caused massive psychological trauma and led to his destructive behavior patterns, Neil finds that he never was able to find someone who would make him feel the way that the coach did, though he is not reticent in seeking out that love.

In the present, the film splits into two parallel narrative tracks, following Neil and Brian seperately. The two stories have quite disparate tones, but I think they work well together, and in light of the finale, it's clear that the film needs both stories to have its full impact. Neil's story is the more serious and developed, following his journeys as a male prostitute. His best friend is Wendy, played by Michelle Trachtenberg, and I'm really glad to see that she's choosing challenging roles in her post-Buffy days. Of all the actors from the show, she's done the most quality work, between this and her all too brief turn on Six Feet Under. She's good here, but is firmly in a supporting role, used to show us more of Neil and help us understand him. I really like their discussion in front of the movie screen, the idea that they would want to watch a movie of their lives that ends with them standing in front of the screen is definitely something I could see myself saying.

Concurrently we follow a slightly goofier plot with Brian and his investigations into UFO culture. Now, we already know that he was not abducted by a UFO, that it's actually the coach, which changes the way that we view these scenes. Brian's arc is his struggle to finally face what happened to him, to clear away the mental blocks that he has built up around the experience. It was good to see Mary Lynn Raskjub, so brilliant on 24, getting some work. She's good here as someone who's quite delusional. If we are to use logic, it would imply that she too was abused, and has masked it behind this story about aliens, but at the same time, it's possible she is telling the truth and Brian sees her zeal as a way to avoid confronting his own issues. The scene where Avalyn comes on to him and he awkwardly rejects her is tough to watch because it's the first time we really witness the extent of the emotional trauma he has suffered.

About halfway through the film Neil heads off to New York and Brian meets up with Eric, Neil's friend. The scenes with Brian and Eric are some of the most fun in the film, as we see Eric gradually move Brian towards the point where he can resolve the issues he has surrounding the abuse experience. We get the sense that Eric is his first real friend, and through their relationship, he gains the courage to stand up to his father and more easily express his feelings. Even though the real torrent of emotion comes at the end of the film, it is his experiences with Eric that allow Brian to finally let go at the end.

In New York we see the at first glamourous life of Neil as a prostitue. The scene where he takes on a john with AIDS is disturbing and has you fearful for the character, who is so self destructive. He has a sheen of invulnerability and can just coast along without concern for the trouble he leaves in his wake and seeing the AIDS victim is like seeing his own future if he's not careful. This invulnerability is completely destroyed in the harrowing confrontation with the man from Brighton Beach who rapes and beat Neil, leaving him bloody and broken. It's a really disturbing scene, the first time that Neil completely loses control of a situation.

The ending of the film is great, as Neil finally acknowledges the damages his actions have done, particularly to Brian. Both Neil and the coach were responsible for what happened to Brian, and that's no an easy thing for Neil to admit. I love the camera move up at the end of the film leaving the two characters crying on the couch, with their pasts finally revealed, the harsh reality torn from the hazy construct of memory. The stories have been destroyed and with only the reality left, they have no choice but to cry, alone in a house that has moved on. Throw in some Sigur Ros and you've got a great ending for a film.

One of the film's greatest successes is its visual style. The camera captures some gorgeous images and the stylization in the memories is striking. Even though the abuse sequences are difficult to watch, they are filmed in a way that works to convey the impact of what is happening, and the restrictions required by the use of such young actors actually ends up helping to create a more stylish depiction of events. I really liked the look of the New York sequences, particularly the stylish bar where Neil 'works,' and also the early 90s goth punk stylings of Wendy and Eric. The music is great as well, with wonderful looping, ethereal guitars adding to the film's beautiful, dreamlike feel, with the Sigur Ros at the end a notable highlight. It's a dark film, but the music manages to make everything palatable, not diminishing the intensity of the impact, but rather placing the viewer in a state where it's acceptable.

Even though it's needed for the story, I think the film does suffer a bit from the divided structure. It's an episodic film and only the two main characters get significant development, the others are all there to serve the needs of the plot. Obviously it's difficult to create a lot of fully fleshed out characters in a 100 minute film, and these aren't grievous offenders on the exposition front, but I'd still have liked to get a bit more insight into what drove Wendy or Eric. Though I guess it's proper that we only see them in relation to Neil or Brian.

The other thing preventing me from fully embracing the film is that the subject matter is difficult. This is a film you respect more than really love, though perhaps like Irreversible, the impact of the violence will lessen on future viewings and it will be easier to watch and enjoy. On the first viewing it's sometimes difficult for me to survey the full impact of a film because I'm anxious about how the narrative will resolve itself, and that was the case here. There were a lot of scenes where the awkwardness made things a bit difficult to watch.

So, on the second viewing I'll make the final decree, but the first viewing definitely proves that this is a top notch film. It uses music and visuals to create a unique mood and supports them with a compelling narrative. A film can make up for a lot of sins if it leaves you with a great ending and that was certainly the case here, the final image was striking and the last scene a great catharsis. This is definitely one of the best films I've seen this year.


Anonymous said...

this movie was nothing but garbage.

Anonymous said...

your an idiot.

this movie was basicly the most amazing... revolting... shocking... brilliant... disturbing... fucked up... fantastic... mind-blowing movie i have ever seen.
i loved it.

Craig Nelson said...

I saw this last night on British TV.

Very cleverly written and produced and typical of Araki's work.

Notably the violent rape scene has the revelatory effect (as so often with Araki violence becomes revelatory) that the character realises (I think) that although he may have been an apparent willing participant in the abuse he is in fact a victim of a terrible form of violence that has stretched in to his adult life.

I would say that this isn't a film to 'enjoy' in the sense of deriving pleasure from terrible things (there is some pleasure to be gained from the final scene where the two victims (each in their own way) comfort each other with a realisation of what really happened.

It's really a film to jolt you and make you think differently about sex and power and it achieves its result very powerfully.

Patrick said...

Most definitely, it's hard to say for sure which Araki film is the best, but I love the way this one manages to keep his prime thematic concerns and visual motifs, but still grow into something much more emotionally grounded than The Doom Generation or Nowhere. This was a major step for him.

skykid said...

Excellent review. Mysterious Skin is one of the best movie I have seen.

Anonymous said...

Viewers who generally consider movies as powerful, thought-provoking and disturbing to watch to be 'garbage', beyond the usual limited scope of the Hollywood churn-machine, are usually those who don't want to confront 'difficult' themes such as those presented in this film, which I consider to be quite the antithesis of garbage. An excellent film.

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Farina said...

saw this movie yesterday and i'd have to say it's really a damn good movie.