Fans of Gregg Araki have come to expect a certain level of B movie horror coupled with former teen stars doing naughty things (usually embarking in gay sex or taking drugs) to apparently break out of their sparkly clean onscreen reputation. This is often all wrapped not so neatly in a spastic meld of sci-fi, sex and a sort of interconnectivity. That’s not to say Araki doesn’t have a certain cinematic something going on as his films can range from downright trippy to intensely realistic…or surreal depending on your mind frame. However, up until this point, it seems like Araki has just been having a good time behind the camera.
“Mysterious Skin” has many of the aforementioned Araki traits as it stars Joseph Gordon- Levitt from TV’s “3rd Rock From the Sun” who gets his skulk on as gay hustler Neil McCormick. The film opens with Neil telling us via voice over all about his first love- his baseball coach, called simply “Coach.” Uncomfortably, this love affair takes place when Neil is only 9 years old. At the same time we’re introduced to 9 year old Brian who explains that at this time, he begins having blackouts in which he wakes up hours later, disoriented and bleeding from his nose.
We’re quickly brought into the present where Neil, as mentioned, is turning tricks in the local park. Brian is a mess as a confused young adult who now believes he was taken and examined by aliens. He becomes obsessed with finding the truth while Neil becomes obsessed with breaking out of his small town.
Brady Corbet plays Brian and is so good in the film that I didn’t realize he was also the lead in “Thunderbirds” as well as the brother in “Thirteen.” Corbet pulls off an amazing performance that will hopefully get him away from films like “Thunderbirds.” Gordon-Levitt turns in a good performance as well but at times he seems to be trying much too hard to be “edgy.” We get it, Joseph, you’re not the little TV kid any more.
As both Neil and Brian stumble along in life, we understand that somehow the two are forever linked. Although both are from the same small town and both were on the same baseball team, neither remembers the other. Brian soon discovers that the answer to his blackouts is somehow connected to Neil but by the time he figures this out, Neil has moved to New York to get the big bucks as a male prostitute.
Without sounding cliché, this film really marks a turning point for Araki. His last film, “Splendor” showed signs of a calmer, more mature director but he really hits a new level here with “Mysterious Skin.” Gone are the giant bugs and the talking severed heads. There isn’t even an acid trip in the film! In their place are intensely real scenes and strong character development. It’s as if Araki has taken his ability to create strange and violent images and transformed that into brutal reality. There are scenes in “Mysterious Skin” that are as memorable and as screwed up as any in his other films. Perhaps this newfound level of storytelling is due to the fact that Araki adapted “Mysterious Skin” from a novel by Scott Heim. However, he also does a nice job of slowly pulling Neil and Brian closer while still allowing each persons storyline to evolve on it’s own.
By the end of “Mysterious Skin,” I felt physically exhausted but I also felt satisfied at the way it all falls into place. As mentioned, Corbet really breaks through here but there’s also great performances by Elisabeth Shue as Neils slutty alcoholic mom and Bill Sage as the creepy, yet kind of sad pedophile Coach.