Mystic River, Kansas
Review: Mysterious Skin
| Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet & Michelle Trachtenberg take a ride in Mysterious Skin
It can't have been an easy sell: Donnie Darko meets Mystic River. Fortunately, someone went for it.
It's great news for queer film fans that Gregg Araki is back in top form. Mysterious Skin is arguably his best film yet, certainly his most mature and fully realized. It's all the more welcome since it follows a long dry spell preceded by one of his worst films, 1999's Splendor, made when Araki was under the spell of alleged actress Kathleen Robertson.
Araki's first adaptation, Mysterious Skin is based on the novel by Scott Heim; but the filmmaker attacks it with the same energy and commitment he usually gives his original projects.
The story follows ten years in the parallel lives of Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) and Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), beginning in the summer of 1981 when they're eight years old (and played respectively by George Webster and Chase Ellison) and play on the same Hutchinson, Kansas, Little League team.
Being molested by their coach (Bill Sage) affects the course of both boys' lives in very different ways. The sexually precocious Neil builds his self-esteem around having been the coach's "favorite" and becomes a hustler when he enters his teens. Brian's psychological defenses kick in and he blocks the incident, losing five hours of his life and knowing only he had a bloody nose when he regained consciousness. He grows up with no interest in sex, other than avoiding it.
Both boys are raised primarily by their mothers. Neil's mother (Elisabeth Shue) is as slutty as he is, while Brian's (Lisa Long) is a June Cleaver type.
Obsessed with learning what happened in the missing five hours, Brian writes down what he remembers of dreams that may be related. One night he watches a TV show about alien abductions and the pieces seem to fall into place. He contacts Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a woman who claims to have been abducted more than 20 times, and they compare notes.
When he's ten Neil meets Wendy (Riley McGuire, growing into Michelle Trachtenberg), his soulmate. He speculates later on how their lives would have turned out if he hadn't already known he was gay. Since he did, they merely become best friends and he tells her all his secrets. Imagine Disney's Ice Princess inspecting the bruises a john left on Neil's dick and saying, "Next time somebody might chomp the whole thing off....Even Hutchinson has its share of freaks"!
Despite their closeness, Wendy is ready to leave Kansas for New York the minute she turns 18. By now they have a third friend, Eric Preston (Jeff Licon), who has a crush on Neil but serves mainly as his chauffeur. Wendy warns Eric, "Where normal people have a heart Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole."
Eventually, the parallel lives will meet and everything will be understood (even the mutilated cow scene will make sense to us) as Brian and Neil face the future with, for the first time, a clear knowledge of their past. The closing "Pieta" shot is lovely.
It can be argued that queer films like Mysterious Skin and Bad Education do as much as the mainstream Sleepers and Mystic River to make viewers equate pedophilia with homosexuality, but I'm more interested in a good movie than a good message.
Now in his mid-forties, Gregg Araki has finally started to mature, but he's maintained his edge. If he had known he could grow up without losing his power to provoke and upset, he might have done it ages ago!
Steve Warren is a local actor and film reviewer. His reviews can also be seen weekly in the Sunday Paper.