Mysterious Skin - another alien movie
Content Warning: The following review contains discussions of sexual violence and exploitation.
As a waterfall of cascading Fruit Loops come into focus, we plunge rapidly into the smooth-chaotic darkness of the first act of Gregg Araki’s 2004 film, "Mysterious Skin." The movie is an adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by Scott Heim, and adapted by Araki. Araki’s films up to this point have been monumental in the development of the new queer cinema movement in the early nineties.* His quintessentially indie D.I.Y. flicks such as "The Living End," "Totally F***ed Up," and "The Doom Generation" all focus on the drug-addicted, sex working, and HIV-positive youth of Araki’s America, a group that was ignored in the popular media and by the government. These films are meant to reflect the outrage of the activists working to spread awareness of the Reagan administration’s inability to respond to the AIDS crisis, not to stereotype the communities that were portrayed. By the late 90’s, Araki was gaining traction and getting larger budgets for his movies, and with that money, Araki casted a striking representation of the AIDS crisis and gay youth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Gordon-Levitt stars alongside Brady Corbett, and they both deliver truly remarkable performances. These characters are Neil (Gordon-Levitt), a disaffected and self-destructive gay hustler, and Brian (Corbett), a sheltered loner fascinated by the aliens he thinks abducted him on two afternoons when he was a boy. Gordon-Levitt makes quite a different turn for his career by starring in this movie. The then-23-year-old had been a teenage-star, with iconic roles in "10 Things I Hate About You" and "3rd Rock from The Sun." This role was an obvious shift into something more serious and adult, with his following role in 2005’s "Brick" being another teenage role set against a criminal underworld of young adults.
Neil and Brian were on the same little league baseball team as kids, Neil being the star player, and Brian being the outcast of the team. In flashback, Brian explains to the audience how his fascination with aliens began after two strange gaps in his memory formed during little league baseball games, as well as a UFO sighting around the same time. We then get to hear Neil explain quite a different story in flashback, which covers the history of sexual abuse at the hands of the coach of their baseball team. The Fruit Loops that open the movie are quickly re-contextualized as a final representation of childhood innocence, as we see the coach using them as a tool to make a mess that they would have to get on the floor to clean up. This re-contextualization is a motif throughout the movie, and is used to replicate the feeling of realization of repressed trauma that Brian goes through, as he realizes that he was abused alongside Neil.
This psychological journey is very effective, and the dichotomy between the two responses to the childhood trauma: self-destructive sense of worthlessness versus emotionally stunted repression, is painted with care and incredibly realistic nuance. Quite early on, the film makes clear to the audience the truth behind Brian’s past, making his slow revelation and journey back to Neil all the more tragic and absorbing.
After the brutal openness of the flashbacks that introduce this movie, the hour that follows often feels like "Requiem for a Dream" meets "Napoleon Dynamite," and that is a more beautiful vibe than you might imagine. The moody shoegaze, yellow coloring, and general midwestern-smalltown-expansive-nothingness combine beautifully with a shocking plot for Neil, who slowly unravels and willingly puts himself into riskier situations, until he is no longer able to say no. The clear depictions of his sex work, filmed with vivid long-take close ups on his face, become agonizing, not to mention the dread concerning the possibility of contracting HIV. This is all balanced with Brian’s slow-moving and mysterious story, which finally meets to give a haunting conclusion, with a brilliant final shot that you’ll be thinking about forever.
Araki’s dreamy and visceral masterpiece keeps the shock of his earlier films and paves space for a more deeply emotional core that delivers a true ache and heartbreak that doesn’t rob the audience of it’s humanity, instead reminding us of the potential for comfort and release in the darkest corners of experience. A movie I eagerly recommend to anyone who wants to go where this movie goes, "Mysterious Skin" is truly one I think can provide you something profound from its source of pain.
*In the late 2010’s Araki directed one episode of "Riverdale," and four episodes of "13 Reasons Why."