This is a harrowing, moving, brilliant film—a film I find more difficult to watch with each viewing. Director Gregg Araki has adapted Scott Heim’s novel (which I have not read, but it is in my cart at amazon.ca) into a nuanced visual tale of child abuse and its effect on two boys and the young men they become.
That Neil and Brian are both outsiders is clear by the time they are eight years old, which is where the film begins. Neil, whose single mother courts a steady succession of boyfriends, drinks too much, and dreams of her ship coming in while holding down a job as a supermarket cashier, already knows that he is gay. When his mom, obviously looking for a way to fill the child-care gap she has created by her lifestyle, enrols him in little league baseball, he is immediately smitten by the coach, a handsome Robert Redford type. Coach is a virtuoso pedophile who quickly recognizes the perfect victim in Neil and begins abusing him. He abuses other boys as well, but Neil, whose need—apparently both sexual and emotional—for a man’s love makes him believe in Coach, is his favourite.
Brian is a different story. A sensitive boy who is scorned by his father and overprotected by his mother, he is abused by Coach on two occasions, one of them when Neil is present and a participant. Brian is profoundly traumatized by the incidents and is plagued by fainting spells, bed wetting, and nightmares. The blackouts and the nightmares—and his highly active imagination—lead him to believe, even as a young man, that he was kidnapped by aliens at the age of eight. A series of meetings and small epiphanies result in the realization that another boy was somehow involved, and that boy was his baseball teammate Neil McCormick.
As an adolescent, Neil begins a career as a hustler. He starts out in the small town in which he grew up but eventually follows his childhood friend Wendy to New York, where the money is better but the “clients” are more sophisticated and more potentially deadly. Wendy finally convinces Neil to get a “normal” job at a sandwich shop, but one night on the way home from work he is accosted by a john and takes the bait. The john takes him to his apartment in Brighton Beach where he beats him savagely and rapes him. It is two days before Christmas. Neil’s mother has bought him a plane ticket to go home to Kansas the next day.
Meanwhile Brian has met Neil’s mother and Neil’s friend Eric. Eric and Brian become close (and some of the most touching scenes in the film involve the sensitive straight boy and the outlandishly gay Eric) and both await Neil’s return. Brian and a somehow changed Neil meet and Neil agrees to tell Brian what happened on that night at Coach’s house. In the final scenes of the movie Neil and Brian are in Coach’s house (now occupied by a “nice, normal” family, who just happen to be out on Christmas Eve so the boys can conveniently break in). They are on the living room sofa, Neil sitting and Brian with his head on Neil’s lap and Neil tenderly stroking his hair as he relates the horrifying details of the night of abuse a decade earlier. Neil does not dilute the story, nor does he have any expectation that the revelation will be cathartic for Brian. But we know that from this moment, the boys’ journey will perhaps begin to take a slightly different direction.
Apart from the cinematically beautiful telling of the story itself, the acting in this film is outstanding. Joseph-Gordon-Levitt as Neil is tough, tender, and sexy by turns and always believable. Brady Corbet as Brian is note perfect: confused, lost, angry, loving, determined, his character is revealed beautifully in all its touching complexity. The friends Wendy and Eric are also delightful.
One of my favourite scenes in this film occurs when Neil is in New York. He is in a bar where he usually picks up clients. The bar is dark and Neil is standing in a deliberately nonchalantly provocative pose. A man at a corner table lights a cigarette and approaches him. As he comes into the light we see that he is a Native American and that he is obviously not well. He takes Neil back to his room, which is all in white except for a large print of Vermeer’s Girl with the Golden Earring above the bed. The man is clearly of a highly sensitive nature, perhaps an artist himself. He undresses Neil and remarks on his beauty: “You are exquisite.” Then as he undresses himself, we see the lesions that afflict victims of AIDS (the setting was 1991). He tells Neil not to worry, that “This is going to be the safest encounter you ever had” and asks only for a backrub. Like Viola Davis in Doubt, this actor is only on the screen for a few moments but the depth of his portrayal -- of a man with AIDS so desperately in need to simply be touched -- is profound and unforgettable.
Mysterious Skin is a must-see.