27 July 2009

The Decade List: Mysterious Skin (2004)

Mysterious Skin - dir. Gregg Araki

Few people, myself included, expected Mysterious Skin to be as good as it was. After the abysmal Splendor, Gregg Araki appeared to have lost it, so imagine the surprise when people actually responded to his, and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt's, "take my serious" cry. Adapting Scott Heim's novel of the same name, Araki never abandoned the incongruity that made his early films so memorable, even when addressing the issue of pedophilia. The most surprising aspect, however, wasn't simply Araki's formalist return, but that he took such a treacherous subject to a level of complexity it's not usually given.

Yes, there are problems. Araki never develops the women in the film to the extent they should have been. The narration, which is otherwise used effectively, shapes the relationship between Neil (Gordon-Levitt) and his "soul mate" Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg) instead of the director. Elisabeth Shue, whom I prematurely described as "doing her best Jennifer Jason Leigh," is actually quite spectacular as Neil's mother, but she's gravely underused. Araki still hasn't quite figured out how to direct actors when they're existing outside of his Los Angeles wasteland. I'm grateful then that his actors here are as skilled as they are. The children occasionally come off awkward in a misdirection sort of way (as opposed to in a "children are naturally awkward" way), and Araki keeps a line or two of dialogue ("I am so sick of this stinkin' little buttcrack of a town!") that should have hit the cutting room floor.

Otherwise, I quite admire the film. Enlisting minimalist composer Harold Budd and Cocteau Twins guitarist Robin Guthrie to create the score, Mysterious Skin flows like an overcast dream, synchronously beautiful and haunting. Of the film's many strengths, it's hard to match the power of the closing sequence. I've always contested that ending a film well is one of the biggest challenges for any filmmaker, but Araki has always been adept in this matter. He provides for the two characters, Neil and Brian (Brady Corbet), an inexorable hope that only art can yield. Through the narrative framing, we leave the two boys, forever marred by their inescapable childhood devastations, when the illusion is at its clearest. Araki doesn't lead us to the assumption that all has been wiped away by this moment, but that in this flash of time, restoration could be attained.

With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, Jeffrey Licon, Chase Ellison, George Webster, Bill Sage, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Richard Riehle, Chris Mulkey, Billy Drago
Screenplay: Gregg Araki, based on the novel by Scott Heim
Cinematography: Steve Gainer
Music: Harold Budd, Robin Guthrie
Country of Origin: USA/Netherlands
US Distributor: Tartan Films/Strand Releasing

Premiere: 3 September 2004 (Venice Film Festival)
US Premiere: January 2005 (Sundance Film Festival)

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