Even people who have seen and loved it, tend to shake their heads when I tell them that I rewatch Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin (2004) at least twice a year. It’s a great movie, they say, but isn’t it enough that it has burnt itself onto my memory once? I see their point – a physically and emotionally brutal drama, it’s not exactly feel-good material – but at the same time, I sense that there’s something else to their reluctance: Is it even possible to love a movie about child abuse? And, if so: Should you feel bad about it? I’d say no, but when these questions even have to be asked, it’s because Araki refuses to make it easy for himself. He could have simply relied on our natural sense that this is one of the worst of crimes, and by making a movie more in tune with what we all consider morally right, he could have shielded himself from much of the criticism he eventually got. But then he wouldn’t have challenged us to take in that when you are taking on a subject this personal, and treading with care amd conviction into an issue we are predisposed to want to think of as black and white, you’re likely to come out with a lot more gray than you’re comfortable with.
There are two reasons why Mysterious Skin may have been the most absorbing movie experience I’ve had so far in this millenium; one specific, having to do with context, and the other more general. Let’s take the specific one first. In many ways, the way I first saw Mysterious Skin is the ultimate way to see any movie. It was in a movie theater, of course, and it was with a friend. But the most important part of the experience was that I didn’t know anything about the movie beforehand. It was during the local film festival back in the fall of 2004, and I actually had tickets to a completely different film. However, we couldn’t get into that screening, but so we were offered to switch our tickets to Mysterious Skin. Going in, I knew next to nothing. I knew that it been selected to compete for the Jury Prize at the festival, which may or may not mean that I was good, and I had a read a very sketchy outline of the plot. It was about gay people, dark secrets, and possibly some aliens. Or something.
That was mostly wrong, of course, but it did the trick. There’s something almost romantic about getting to see a movie without having your preconceptions of it having been worked on by reviews or marketing campaigns, your previous knowledge of the director or the actors, or even whether the plot sounds like something that would speak to you. I had nothing to go by, and I’m convinced that that contributed a whole lot to the rawness of the experience. I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been as good if I’d seen it under different circumstances, but it would have been a totally different experience. There are manifold reasons why I keep seeing this movie over and over again, but one of the most important is that it reminds me of how powerful movies can be at their very finest. And every time, I’m in some ways trying to recreate that experience of seeing it for the first time. I’m emotionally attached to the memories of it, just like I’m attached to the movie itself.
This speaks to the general point. It’s a movie that sneaks up on you, vibrant with the rage of a revenge flick, the energy of a coming of age drama, and, most importantly, the curiosity and complexity of a movie that really sets out to understand its characters. I appreciate several of Gregg Araki’s earlier movies for their sheer gusto in portraying non-compromising gay characters, but I’d nonetheless say that Mysterious Skin, in addition to being by far his best movie, is also the one in which he speaks with the most conviction. While there are moments of humor in there, he is, finally, not out to undermine his own project, like he did for much of the time in his apocalyptic trilogy, Totally Fucked Up (1994), The Doom Generation (1995), and Nowhere (1997). Araki fully understands how to tell this story in a way that respects both the angsty restlessness of its protagonists and the slowly unraveling darkness that pulses through every scene.
Mysterious Skin tells the story of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Bryan (Brady Corbett), two young guys from small-town Kansas tied to each other, we later learn, by the fact that they were both abused by their Little League coach (Bill Sage). In the ten years that have passed, the experience has shaped them in radically different ways. Bryan’s reaction is the the one we feel that we can understand and sympathize with. While he is clearly marked by something, he has managed to erase the trauma almost completely, to the point were he honestly doesn’t know what happened to him; he attributes his strange memories to his fascination for UFOs. His successful suppression of these memories allows him to run away from whatever dark secrets may lie in his past, but we clearly understand that it will only make the truth even harder to handle when he’s finally led to Neil.
Neil, on the other hand, is exactly the opposite. It’s not only that he’s fiercely sexual whereas Bryan, in the words of Neil’s friend Eric, is “weirdly asexual”, or even that he’s a hustler. What might be the hardest thing to accept about Neil is that he seems to be implicitly defending his molester. We get the sense that he’s hustling mostly because he needs to feel wanted, cherished even, the way that he was when “I was his [the coach’s] prize. (…) I was his favorite.” His mother, more a best friend than an authority figure in his life, was never able to give him his full attention and support, and so he seems to be emotionally attached to this incident in his childhood. As long as his hustling goes well, he feels like he’s in charge of his life, and proving to himself that he won’t let what happened take him down. Nothing or no one in his life comes as close to the feeling of being special, as the physical and economic gratitutude he is shown by his costumers.
But there’s another, even more disturbing aspect to Neil’s story, one that complicates our wish for a clean-cut heroic narrative even further . Gregg Araki doesn’t only pose the question of whether one can harbor complex feelings toward a molester. He also digs down deep into the psyche of a child, to find that the attraction between the coach and Neil didn’t just go one way. Neil describes how he was immediately attracted to the older man, even at age 8: “Back then I didn’t know what do with my feelings. They were like a gift I had to open in front of a crowd.” It’s obviously true for Neil, but it instinctively makes us uncomfortable, because we know that his desires will make him an easier target for a predator, if the natural trust and admiration that is so often present between a child and a figure of authority further weakens his defenses.
When I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen the first time I saw it, and when nobody said anything for the entire walk home afterward, I think it had to do with how Mysterious Skin is not only a hypnotic, but even a consciously and bravely seductive movie. In the key scene where the coach finally seduces Neil by acting like they’re the same age, I was struck by how the score and the cinematography creates a warm mood, as if to underline how this actually feels like a safe environment for Neil. It has a particularly disturbing effect on us. We’re witnessing something terrible, but at the same time we are forced to think about how that may not become clear to Neil until long after the fact.
When that finally catches up with Neil; when he’s can no longer run away from the fact that what happened both to him and to Bryan is a large part of who he is, Mysterious Skin also becomes a movie about guilt. Not just the guilt easily identified, like that of the coach, or the anger directed towards those who were blind to what happened to the people around them, like Bryan’s absent father, or Neil’s naive mother. The way I read the harrowing final scene, in which Neil is finally forced to reveal exactly how he and Bryan share a destiny, it’s more than anything about Neil’s sense of guilt for leading Bryan to the coach. Heaped on an eight year old far too young to understand the consequences of his actions, it’s a totally unreasonable guilt. But that guilt, never laid out in anything but Gordon-Levitt’s absolutely jarring performance, is the dark cloud that hangs over a scene that could in other ways have delivered closure, however tarnished the lives they now have a chance to move on with are. They’ll never forget what happened. Neither will I.