by Jon Bastian
Gregg Araki has arrived. Keep an eye on him as he goes places.
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When last I caught up with Gregg Araki here at Filmmonthly, it was in a review of his Splendor, his 1999 variation on screwball comedy. I noted in that review, “Splendor is an excellent sign that Araki is going to be with us for a while, and is only going to keep getting better.”
His latest, Mysterious Skin, is proof that he has gotten better, and is going to be a directorial force to reckon with for a long time. Of course, I’ve never met an Araki film I haven’t loved, and you can read my comments on the rest of his work elsewhere on this site - from 1993’s Totally Fucked Up to 1995’s The Doom Generation through 1997’s Nowhere, and the aforementioned Splendor. But Mysterious Skin manages to combine both his earlier themes of teen angst with the grown-up emotions of Splendor, and the end result is screen dynamite, a moving piece that will stick with you long after it’s over.
Adapted from Scott Heim’s novel, Mysterious Skin starts us off with a parallel story told by two narrators, two boys who could not be more different. The first thread comes from Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet, Thunderbirds, Thirteen), who had five hours mysteriously vanish from his life when he was eight years old and, over the next decade, becomes more and more convinced that he was abducted by aliens. The second thread is told by Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock from the Sun, Latter Days), who, at eight, lusted after his little league coach, fell into a brief sexual relationship with him, then started working at fifteen as a hustler with a thing for much older men, seemingly non-stop. The two stories wend their separate ways for much of the film, finally colliding at the end with emotionally wrenching results.
In between, Araki presents us with some of his finest story telling and most subtly directed acting to date. As usual in his work, things that are left unsaid speak volumes, so that an entire relationship is established in a single gesture, everything building on his theme. Because of the split-narrative structure, we find ourselves dealing with the issue of a doppelganger, or double. Although they don’t meet until late in the game, Brian and Neil are the opposite halves of the same coin, a yin and yang; twin witnesses to a singular event who react to and deal with it in quite different ways. Neil turns into the biggest slut in Hutchinson, Kansas, fucking his way through every closeted gay man in the place, then moving on to New York to continue his business. Meanwhile, Brian seems to shut himself off from all human contact and, in fact, is described as asexual by another character. And, while Brian and his family are the epitome of down home Kansas middle class, Neil and his mother (Elisabeth Shue, Deconstructing Harry, Leaving Las Vegas) have a very honest and, at times, wee bit creepy relationship - think Jill Clayburgh and Matthew Barry in Luna.
The conclusion of the film, when the inadvertent twins collide, is devastating, as two sets of illusions are destroyed, but Araki leaves us with the possible hope of something better being created in the aftermath.
Performances all-around are outstanding, with Gordon-Levitt an absolute standout. It’s hard to believe that this is the little boy who was so funny in Third Rock, but I can’t help but think that Gordon-Levitt has taken a very carefully calculated career path in stripping himself of the cute child star title forever - emphasis on stripping. And he’s damn good in the role, going from swaggering fifteen year-old slut who knows he’s the hottest thing in town to lost boy strictly by virtue of the life behind his eyes. He’s one of those actors who just commits to a role and goes for it. On the flipside, Corbet’s Brian is, on the surface, the kind of kid that any parent would want - quiet, studious, virginal - but he’s also got his deep-seated quirks, centered around his belief that he’s a UFO abductee. Corbet plays it with absolute sincerity, and no patronizing. In some ways, his is the more difficult role. Where Neil reacts to the past by throwing himself outward into a carnal life, Brian reacts by pulling himself inward, and yet Corbet’s Brian never has a less than full internal life onscreen, even when his face is a total cipher.
The supporting cast is equally wonderful. Shue hits just the right notes as the perhaps too young mother who is nothing but totally honest with her only son; Lisa Long (Legally Blonde 2, Cast Away) provides much comic relief in a single glance as Brian’s mother, who grows increasingly skeptical over his long-distance relationship with fellow-abductee Avalyn Friesen (Mary Lynn Rajskub, Punch Drunk Love, Storytelling), and then relieved as it falls apart. Also notable are Michelle Trachtenberg (EuroTrip, “Buffy, the Vampire Slayer”) as Neil’s soulmate and conscience, and Billy Drago (The Untouchables, Mad Dog Time) as an HIV-positive man in the very late stages of KS who actually provides the film’s most human moment as he hires hustler Neil, but then wants nothing more than a backrub. “I need to be touched,” he says, and we are. Also notable is Jeffry Licon (“Joan of Arcadia”) as Eric, a close friend of Neil’s who absolutely lusts for him, despite Wendy’s warning that, “Where most people have a heart, Neil just has a deep, black hole.”
And yet, despite that, by the end of the film, we care deeply for Neil and Brian, and only want them to survive what they’ve been through and move on. The final shot is practically an Araki signature, although I don’t doubt that it comes right from Heim’s text. But it’s a moving moment of hope that sticks with us long after the final fade out, as two people who have everything and nothing in common begin to deal with the bad hand that life has dealt them.
And, I think that Mysterious Skin marks Araki’s complete transition from gay-oriented indie filmmaker to serious auteur. Put him on the short list with Terry Gilliam, Martin Scorsese, John Waters and Quentin Tarantino - directors whose next work is worth checking out, no matter what it is, strictly by virture of their involvement.
Jon Bastian is a playwright and screenwriter in Los Angeles.
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