You might not think that the director of the venomous 1994 satire The Doom Generation could craft a harrowing, quietly observed drama about the lingering specter of child abuse – but you'd be wrong. Writer/director Gregg Araki's filmography is littered with kinetic, confrontational films that serve as a loose sketch of disaffected youth; it's surprising then that Mysterious Skin, while somewhat stylized, still manages to sneak up on you, delivering a stunning emotional blow as one of 2004's best films that likely no one saw.
On its surface, Mysterious Skin seems vaguely cliched and tired – adapted from the acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel by Scott Heim, the film (adapted by Araki) concerns Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) and Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), two seemingly unconnected youth coming of age in a dead-end Kansas town. Brian, a meek nerd obsessed with UFOs and alien abduction, is consumed by a period early in his life where he blacked out and awoke with a bloody nose, unable to remember the previous five hours. Neil, an only child whose promiscuous mother (Elisabeth Shue) more or less left him to the care of his Little League coach (Bill Sage), matured into a devil-may-care gay hustler, content to turn tricks in the city park and visit his friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenburg) in New York City.
The film takes its time building to the devastating climax, cross-cutting between each boy's journey of self-discovery; Araki doesn't rush things and is quite content to linger on some of the more disturbing and salacious aspects. That said, given that the film deals with an intensely difficult subject – child abuse – Mysterious Skin does handle some extraordinarily uncomfortable scenes with the utmost tact and sensitivity. The pair of child actors who play Brian and Neil – George Webster and Chase Ellison, respectively – turn in the most impressive performances I've seen from pre-teen actors in quite some time. Truly amazing. This, of course, is not to discredit the thoroughly stellar work turned in by the rest of Araki's cast: Gordon-Levitt erases any trace of "3rd Rock From The Sun" that may still be lingering, with an assured, brave appearance as the impetuous Neil; Corbet (previously seen in Thirteen) is compelling as Brian, the confused, hurt alien nut; Trachtenburg, Sage, Shue – even Jeffrey Licon, Mary Lynn Raksjub, Richard Riehle and Billy Drago register strongly in their brief moments onscreen.
Ultimately, Mysterious Skin (which will likely prove to be too brutal for some viewers; Araki pulls no punches, particularly in a vicious climactic beating) is a haunting, unforgiving and raw film that sketches in detail the lives of two lost boys who, in their efforts to find their way home, discover each other and the heartbreaking secrets they share.
Mysterious Skin is offered in a clean, relatively sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer – Steve Gainer's gritty, evocative cinematography is nicely realized with scant defects visible. Overall, a great, film-like image that compliments the visual tone nicely.
A varied aural selection is included here: DTS 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 stereo is onboard, with the DTS track edging out the Dolby Digital track ever so slightly in terms of warmth, space and atmospheric clarity. Araki leans on an evocative rock soundtrack (Slowdive and Sigur Ros, among others), which is reproduced faithfully.
At first blush, there wouldn't seem to be much supplemental material included, but what's presented by Tartan is a prime example of quality over quantity: a candid, relaxed commentary from Araki, Gordon-Levitt and Corbet reveals the difficulties of getting the film made as well as each participant's reaction to the source material; there's a few spoilers here and there, so avoid the track until after you've viewed the film. Also on board is a charmingly ragged 54 minute, 37 second full-screen featurette that highlights a book reading from "Mysterious Skin" with Gordon-Levitt and Corbet; the film's theatrical trailer in full-screen with trailers for 9 Songs, Milwaukee Minnesota, Ma Mere and America Brown rounding out the disc.
Mysterious Skin sneaks up on you. It's the type of film that leaves you momentarily struck dumb at its sheer honesty and raw brutality; Araki indulges in heartbreaking flashes of surrealism that only deepen the film's considerable emotional impact. Easily one of the best films of 2004 that very few saw, Mysterious Skin just missed DVD Talk Collectors Series status, but not by much: it's quite highly recommended.