Mysterious Skin (2005)

Aman Agah

Rendered in vivid colors, Neil's past appears more lucid than the present, but his memories are also selective and likely unreliable.

Mysterious Skin

Director: Gregg Araki
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Bill Sage, Elisabeth Shue
MPAA rating: Not rated
Studio: Tartan Films
First date: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-05-06 (Limited release)

With no clear memory of what happened to him as an eight-year-old, Brian (Brady Corbet) suffers repeated blackouts and believes aliens abducted him. As Mysterious Skin reveals, however, he and his best friend Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) were molested by their Little League coach. While Neil does remember what happened, he fails at first to see anything wrong with Coach's actions. He tries to view the relationship as a "natural" part of maturation.

Such efforts to reconstruct memory lie at the center of Gregg Araki's film. As Neil narrates his first day of Little League, the camera is close in on the eight-year-old Neil's (Chase Ellison) face. Older Neil states that he was already "in love," and the camera slowly pans up to reveal a hulk of a man, the low angle underlining the child's perspective. Feeling ignored by his alcoholic mother (Elisabeth Shue), Neil reminisces that he was the coach's star player and "favored" boy. It is only later that he comes to see he was a victim and not a lover.

Brian's troubles with the past are more visible. He still lives with his single, overprotective mother (Lisa Long). Because Brian's mother does not share his eagerness for discovering the truth about what happened to him, Brian seeks help from abduction enthusiast Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub). As Brian and Avalyn discuss the possibilities of abduction, his memories take different shapes. The ominous figure looming over him grows clearer and Brian realizes he must find the one other person he can see in his mind, Neil.

Only Neil knows what actually happened to Brian, but he guards his own relationship with Coach closely. Because the viewer knows the connection between the boys (via flashbacks), the film's primary tension has to do with how Brian discovers the truth. Nothing here is evident. We may think we have unlocked Brian's past, but we come to learn that Neil, our narrator, holds a particular key.

Rendered in vivid colors, Neil's past appears more lucid than the present, but his memories are also selective and likely unreliable. Through prostitution, he believes he can control his sexual experiences, and so control what was done to him as a child. If this isn't a new way to treat childhood abuse in film, it does grant Neil a certain edge: he's neither wholly sympathetic nor wholly disturbing, but a study in effects.

Neil's memory becomes our memory. Although he wants to keep his recollection of Coach "pure," his anger, frustration, and confusion become increasingly evident in his actions. Emotionally detached, he lusts after men who resemble his coach. He even has his friend Eric (Jeffrey Licon) drive by the coach's old house. Infatuated with Neil, Eric accommodates, despite having no idea whose house it is or why it is important. Neil keeps all his friends at bay, removed from the "bottomless pit" of his heart, as his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) describes it. Neil even keeps from revealing too much to himself. He can stare at Coach's house for only so long before having Eric drive away. But the harder he tries to remember Coach as a lover instead of molester, the closer he comes to breaking down.

Neil's past, as well as his reaction to Coach, complicates preconceived notions of sexuality, more to the point, homosexuality. It is important to note and remember that Neil states his attraction to men before the molestation, which does not leave room for those who would argue the tired stereotype that sexual abuse is one "cause" of homosexuality. While Mysterious Skin is about the simultaneous desire for and reconstruction of truth, there are things stated and shown that cannot be ignored.

It is at first clear throughout Mysterious Skin what is true and what is fantasy. Neil's initial recollection as he tells the audience of his frequent stops at Coach's house, are saturated with vibrant colors and intimate shots of the young boy smiling happily at his older "mentor." Neil's memories have a dreamlike quality to them contrasted by the reality of his present state, a much duller landscape and less happy looking young man. There is no question that what he is telling the viewer is severely different from the truth, and it is only a matter of time before Neil needs to reconcile his past with his present. Mysterious Skin suggests why Neil does what he does, but to its credit, does not explain why he is who he is.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.