"The summer I was 8 years old, five hours disappeared from my life." —opening narration, Mysterious Skin
Over the last decade, American independent cinema has amassed a significant number of provocative dramas in whole or in part about pedophilia, including Happiness, The Woodsman, L.I.E., and Little Children. What do they all have in common? They're mainly interested in accessing the sick compulsions of the pedophile, and his tragic failure to keep those compulsions in check, even though he's keenly aware of them. These films get their edge from toeing the line of understanding to a point, then stopping short of out-and-out sympathy; all these men have evil inside them that can't be reined in, but accounting for human weakness doesn't stop them from being monsters.
Hollywood movies could never veer close to this territory, but after watching Gregg Araki's powerful Mysterious Skin again for this column, it struck me that indie films are guilty of taking a similarly narrow posture on the issue. Taking stock of the pedophile's perspective is a daring but ultimately shallow gambit, because there are never any facets to the character beyond a behavior that cannot be stopped. But Araki's film reveals that the problems for the victims are thornier and more ambiguous: How do children, robbed of their innocence at such an early age, develop in the years that follow? How can they salve their bruised psyches and reconstitute their lives as young adults, trying to make their way in the world like everyone else? Is that even possible?
To be honest, I was a little surprised to hear questions like that coming from Araki, whose earlier films I found either stridently provocative or fairly disposable in their candy-colored evocation of sexed-up primetime soap operas like Beverly Hills 90210 or Melrose Place. I knew I wanted to do something on Araki for The New Cult Canon, because of his central role in the wave of queer independent cinema that swept the arthouse scene in the wake of Todd Haynes' 1991 breakthrough Poison and Araki's angry 1992 no-budgeter The Living End. I've been meaning to revisit Araki's work since seeing Mysterious Skin—and recently enjoying his ambling pot comedy [Smiley Face]—and perhaps I'd have more of an appreciation now for the dark humor and punk nihilism of films like The Doom Generation or Nowhere, or the day-glo fantasy world of Splendor. Even at his worst, Araki could always be counted on for having the courage to venture fearlessly (and often recklessly) into extreme territory. He's never been guilty of turning out bland mediocrities.
Adapted from a highly regarded debut novel by Scott Heim—whose prose seems to have limited the bluntness that frequently sneaks into Araki's dialogue—Mysterious Skin isn't a perfect film by any means, but it's certainly the perfect film for Araki. Splitting the difference between Araki's aggressive, uncompromising "Teenage Apocalypse Trilogy" and the lush sensuality that found its way into his later work, Skin captures both the stark horror and the cruel seductiveness of a skillful predator drawing young boys into his universe. The predator, in this case, is a Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage) who has converted his place into something like the gingerbread house in "Hansel And Gretel"—a prepubescent paradise featuring videogames, beanbag chairs, bottles of Peach Nehi, and cupboards filled with treats that boys can't have at home. In this scene, the coach ingratiates himself to his star player, 8-year-old Neil (played as a kid by Chase Ellison, and later by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), through the sugar-cereal variety packs that Neil's mother (Elisabeth Shue) would never let him have at home:
Opening in the prototypical Heartland town of Hutchinson, Kansas (where Heim grew up) in 1981, Mysterious Skin cuts between two boys on vastly different but intimately connected trajectories. The only thing they have in common was the baseball team, but even there, they didn't have much to do with each other: While Neil was smacking game-winning home runs, Brian (played as a kid by George Webster, and later by Brady Corbet) was mostly riding the pine, a bespectacled geek whose father forced him to participate. (Okay, make that two things in common: Neil and Brian have flawed but attentive mothers and absentee/bullying fathers that weren't around when they needed protection.) Until the cathartic ending, their paths barely intersect, and Araki establishes a nice rhythm between these parallel bodies.
After the coach deflowers him, Neil grows into a reckless teenage hustler, appealing to johns who cast him furtive glances while cruising the park, or exchange blowjobs at the press box when he's doing PA duty at local softball games. Neil's sole confidant, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), knows all his secrets and does what she can to play surrogate mother, but she also understands that something is missing. "Where normal people have a heart," she warns. "Neil has a bottomless black hole. And if you don't watch out, you can fall in and get lost forever." Wendy eventually moves to New York City and Neil follows her, but hustling in the big city, where the AIDS crisis is in full bloom and the johns are ever more dangerous, seems to promise disaster.
Meanwhile, Brian spends his time as a young adult trying to account for the missing five hours between when he blacked out after a baseball game and when he woke up alone in a cellar. Dreaming of a shadowy figure with long, scaly fingers, Brian keys in on the idea that he was abducted by space aliens, and he seeks out a fellow abductee (a funny, oddly poignant Mary Lynn Rajskub) with a similar story. The picture only starts getting a little clearer when he tries to seek out Neil, and he befriends Neil's hopeless gay crush Eric (Jeffrey Licon). Though Araki tries to save the revelation about what really happened to Brian until later, I think it's pretty obvious from the start that his past traumas and Neil's are intertwined.
When I reviewed Mysterious Skin back in 2004, I felt the film was almost fatally unbalanced. To wit: "[Neil's] thread resonates much more strongly, perhaps because his traumas are grounded in some tangible reality instead of the ethereal strangeness of [Brian's] alien encounters." Though I've softened ever-so-slightly on this point, and I feel like the sum of both stories has a cumulative power, it's still Neil's harrowing journey that brings the movie home for me. And credit for that belongs in large part to Gordon-Levitt's towering performance, which coming on the heels of the underrated Manic, asserted the former 3rd Rock From The Sun cast member as one of the best young actors of his generation.
That 3rd Rock boyishness stays with Gordon-Levitt in Mysterious Skin, but it's also transformed by a premature world-weariness, exactly right for a kid introduced to adulthood earlier than he should have been. It's tempting to compare Gordon-Levitt in this film to a junior Marlon Brando, in the sense that he lets off heat and vulnerability, yet his wife-beater shirts, unlike Brando's, expose him as fragile and eternally pubescent, rather than animal magnetism personified. In spite of his tough veneer, Neil sincerely believes he was the coach's "one and true love," no matter how many other kids drew the man's attention, and Gordon-Levitt makes Neil's delusions and vulnerability painfully real. He also throws himself into explicit scenes that a vainer or more cautious young actor would never attempt, including a shocking sequence where Neil finally bottoms out in Brighton Beach.
There's a somewhat pat element of pop-psychological therapy to Mysterious Skin, especially once Neil and Brian finally come together and the healing can begin. But I think Araki's battered hopefulness is checked by the sober reality that they'll never be okay, and that those metaphorical five hours missing from their lives have created a crater-sized hole that isn't so easily filled in. They both lost their childhood, yet they're permanently anchored to it, and Mysterious Skin is only partially optimistic about their chances of wriggling free.
Next week: Bitter Moon
Feb. 5: Velvet Goldmine
Feb. 12: The Limey (commentary track)
Feb. 19: Eyes Wide Shut