Mysterious Skin

(2005) *** 1/2 Nc-17
96 min. Tartan Films USA. Director: Gregg Araki. Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage.

In his adaptation of Scott Heim's novel Mysterious Skin, director Gregg Araki delivers an indie triumph with material most would consider untouchable. The film—rated NC-17 by the MPAA—concerns pedophilia and includes scenes of sex and violence that are invariably disturbing, but Araki handles them with care, restraint, and unnerving thoughtfulness, resulting in one of the most powerful films of the year.

As the story opens, two eight-year-old boys in the heartland play for the same little league team. One, named Brian (George Webster), recalls spotting a UFO, blacking out, and suffering unexplained nosebleeds. The other, Neil (Chase Ellison), becomes the boytoy of his coach (Bill Sage), who maintains a seductive, well-stocked rumpus room. As the story flashes forward, teenage dropout Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)--harbors conflicted feelings about that sexual initiation, but his self-destructive lifestyle as a gay hustler reflects his lingering taste for older men. Brian, now played by Brady Corbet of Thirteen, sets out to solve the mystery of his "lost time," an investigation that introduces him to a purported alien abductee (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and inevitably leads him back to Neil.

Mysterious Skin doesn't operate so much on suspense as a sick inevitability. These characters on a path to disaster are always clearly drawn and therefore hugely sympathetic. Gordon-Levitt—best known for his work on the sitcom Third Rock From the Sun—immerses himself in the cynical and reckless abandon of Neil, and Corbet keeps his shambling shtick just reigned in enough to be more affecting than off-putting. Each character has a few dramatic turning points (most notably Neil's encounter with a sad trick who represents a ghost of Neil's future), culminating in a shared epiphany that packs an emotional wallop. The sterling ensemble—including Elisabeth Shue, Michelle Trachtenberg, and Jeffrey Licon—pulls its weight.

Araki's approach is occasionally stilted, but more often ingenious in its clear-eyed appropriation of Heim's imagery: the half-forgotten-dream quality of the child-abuse scenarios. Neil's memories consciously seize on upbeat images, like the rain of Fruit Loops—candy-colored holes—that, in hindsight, take on a mocking sexual symbolism. Likewise, Brian's alien-abduction metaphor, with its implicit violation terrors and stolen time, captures the maddening frustration of a past that resists reclamation or resolution. Though the scot-free pedophile, in absentia, invites blame, Araki embraces the mysteries of human sexuality with a refreshing lack of hysteria and a brace of empathy.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85.1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 Surround

Street date: 10/25/2005

Distributor: TLA Releasing/Tartan Video

The DVD special edition of Mysterious Skin features a fine transfer (other than a smattering of specks) and crisp audio. In addition, director Gregg Araki and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet contribute a boisterous, feature-length, screen-specific commentary. All kidding aside (and there's a fair share of that), the three recall the inspiration of author Scott Heim, explain the clever manner in which the child actors were scupulously shielded from the disturbing subject matter (Corbet himself was only 14 for most of the shoot), and recount a number of anecdotes about production, including the shooting of character-motivated but nevertheless unpleasant sex scenes. The commentary wraps up with extensive discussion of the film's final scene (including its haunting Sigur Ros track) and its lasting impact on audiences. "Book Reading with Brady Corbet and Joseph Gordon-Levitt" (54:37) is a video recording of Corbet reading Chapter One of Mysterious Skin and Gordon-Levitt reading Chapter Two; shot in close-up, the actors' readings are accompanied by occasional, quick clips from the film. The disc also includes the "Original Theatrical Trailer" (1:53) in fullscreen.
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Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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