Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) went missing for five hours when he was eight-years-old, an event that he remains convinced was the result of alien abduction. In the same small Kansas town, teenage hustler Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a confused outsider with a promiscuous mother (Elisabeth Shue) and who was abused as a child by his Little League coach (Bill Sage). Locked into their own obsessions, both young men pursue a self-destructive path that will lead them towards each other, and will result in each of them trying to exorcise the demons of their past.
In 2004, director Gregg Araki stepped away from the kind of brazen, in-your-face style arthouse films he was best known for with 'The Doom Generation,' 'Nowhere,' and 'The Living End,' to adapt Scott Heim's 1995 novel, 'Mysterious Skin.' With subject matter that revolved around sexual abuse, homosexuality, questions of identity, and fractured memories, it seemed as though the adaptation was right up Araki's alley. And yet, his approach to the material was unlike anything the director had delivered before, resulting in a film that, despite the inherent unease generated by its focus, became a powerful and affecting delivery system for an otherwise difficult and occasionally unpleasant story. It also became at the time, and remains today, the most accomplished work in Araki's catalogue.
Split between two distinct time periods and two divergent characters, 'Mysterious Skin' is by no means a conventional narrative. Araki utilizes this aspect of the story to great effect, taking the audience through the lives of his dual protagonists, Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), in an irregular motion, weaving back and forth between storylines and through time, granting the film a semi-lucid quality that slowly come to terms with what transpired when these boys were eight-years-old, and how it ultimately shaped their lives by first fracturing it.
The film depicts sexual abuse with straightforward frankness; the molestation of first Neil and then Brian by their little league coach (Bill Sage) is wisely transferred from the primary focal point to being the tragic, unsettling circumstance that would forge two unfortunate identities. In that regard, 'Mysterious Skin' is more interested in the ramifications of abuse than in the act itself; it investigates the bifurcated existence of two young men who have wildly different means of coping with the exploitation they endured at the hands of someone entrusted to look after them. For his part, Neil has become a young hustler, striving in some odd way to recreate the circumstances in which he was made to "feel special" by his coach, engaging in an endless parade of sexual encounters with mustachioed, working-class men. Meanwhile, Brian has become emotionally stunted; certain the blackouts, bloody noses, and other physiological conditions that partially define him are the result of having been abducted by aliens as a child.
In a sense, Brian's transference of molestation by a trusted adult, to molestation by fictional extra-terrestrials is the thematic heart of the film. Brian is substituting one abduction for another, trading the appalling seizure of his childhood and his innocence, for a more discreditable, and yet somehow more palatable and less shameful assertion that his body was temporarily taken by visitors from another planet. This bizarre form of sublimation is outwardly a contradiction to Neil's life on the fringe as a male prostitute in Kansas, and later, New York. But at the same time, it's really just both young men attempting to reconstruct the shattered pieces of their past, into something resembling a future.
The outsider qualities inherent in both Neil and Brian are clearly representative of where Araki likes to take characters in his films. Adding to the slate of outcasts in the film are Michelle Trachtenberg as Neil's platonic best friend Wendy, and Jeffrey Licon, as Eric, whose outward appearance seemingly acts as the physical manifestation of the discord each character has with the world around them, and demonstrates the different lengths to which they all go to conceal the effect of that conflict. Wendy acts as the conduit for Neil's progression, while Eric surprisingly helps ease Brian's transition into discovering and eventually accepting the truth. And the truth is: both young men are broken, but in different ways that say volumes about them. To its great credit, 'Mysterious Skin' doesn't condemn or ask Neil to feel shame for his curious reminiscence that constantly throws him back into potentially harmful situations, nor does it seek to ridicule Brian for his misguided attempts to find the answers to questions he's unaware need to be asked.
By staging the story's chronology in the manner it does, 'Mysterious Skin' allows the audience to know the answer to the question long before either of the characters. But this isn't just narrative math the film is playing at; rather, it's actively seeking to find meaning in Neil and Brian's stories by asking the victims to expose and acknowledge truths that had gone unacknowledged for too long, thereby, in some strange way, the healing process can finally begin. The lengthy and difficult denouement wisely refuses to deliver easy answers, though. Instead, it takes Neil and Brian's experiences as far as they can go in this instance, and, frankly, as far as they need to go in terms of finding poignancy in the story – that is: things have been uncovered and understood, but tragically, and perhaps permanently, remain unsettled.
The efficacy of 'Mysterious Skin' doesn't come from a tidy resolution, though; it comes from the manner in which Araki and his actors confront the nature of abuse by tasking the audience with many difficult questions, and by viewing victimization through two distinct, and equally challenging lenses. Rather than gradually amplify the boys' exploitation to try and test the tolerance of its audience, Araki's film ensures that Neil and Brian's experiences – both together and apart – become something cut and dry, and something resisting clarification. It is the known and unknown colliding to make the characters and the audience work to understand more than the simple black and white nature of something as sinister as child abuse; it is the particular acceptance of how someone begins to move on that defines them.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Mysterious Skin' comes from Strand Releasing as a single 50GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keepcase. Coming from Strand there are no previews ahead of the top menu, instead the disc automatically allows you to choose from the film, or the many interesting supplements this 10th anniversary addition contains.
'Mysterious Skin' is presented with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer checks most of the requisite boxes in terms of detail, color, and contrast by delivering an image that plays up Araki's constant use of close up to good effect. In these instances, facial features are presented with distinction and clarity, though they tend to fall away somewhat during wider shots. Detail in the background is similarly detailed, though it does become slightly muddled at times. Contrast is generally quite high, allowing for full-bodied blacks to help the many dark, nighttime sequences look their best – an element that is further enhanced by the absence of distracting crush or banding. Color is generally bright and vibrant throughout, affording Araki a chance to accentuate thematic differences in the time periods by filling Neil and Brian's childhood with bright hues that seem to dim somewhat later on.
While the film is only 10 years old, there are some signs of aging present; most of it has been dealt with in a satisfactory manner. Some enhancement to the image appears to have taken place, which reduces grain, but adversely gives certain moments a plastic, artificial quality that oddly seems to enhance the symbolism of the film.
In the end, the image here is slightly above average, managing to get more right than wrong, and still provide a decent viewing experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix handles the film's two primary components quite well, blending the score and dialogue to make something completely immersive and enjoyable. Dialogue is crisp and easily understood; each actor sounds distinct and the clarity of the mix's presentation allows their performance to be augmented by the presence of the film's score and musical selection. Most of the dialogue is loaded toward the front end, with the center channel doing most of the heavy lifting. Right front and left speakers supply the majority of the music, which includes some subtle LFE for additional depth. Rear channels come into play occasionally, to add a semblance of atmosphere, which is most effective during the nighttime sequences set outdoors.
This is a solid mix presented here that really accentuates the subtleties of the film's sound, while highlighting its tremendous use of music and dialogue.
Commentary with Directory Gregg Araki, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Brady Corbet
Deleted Scenes (SD, 6 min.) – Araki's approach to filmmaking has been described as very deliberate and well planned, so, unsurprisingly, these deleted scenes that primarily include alternate takes of Coach and young Neil feel as though they were wisely excised from the final product.
Mysterious Skin Book Reading (SD, 55 min.) – Shortly after the film was released in 2004, Araki, Gordon-Levitt, and Corbet staged a live reading of the book – with the two main leads handling different sections of the text. As an added bonus, certain portions of the film have been added to the reading, to demonstrate just how faithfully the film recreates Heim's novel.
Actors' Audition Tape (SD, 8 min.) – This presents early footage of Corbet and Gordon-Levitt before they'd been officially cast in the film.
International Trailer (SD, 2 min.)
'Mysterious Skin' may have been a film that many people overlooked when it was first released, and this superb 10th anniversary edition offers a spectacular way to be acquainted or reacquainted with the material. This was the film that ostensibly launched Joseph Gordon-Levitt's film career, and proved that he was capable of handling the kind of material he would later carry so well in his later films. While Araki has made a few other movies since this one, 'Mysterious Skin' still stands out as his finest effort. With above average picture, good sound, and some great supplements, this one comes recommended.