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.
This review stemmed from a discussion that broke out on DVD Talk's forum about the release and super-fast withdrawal that occurred with Mysterious Skin not long after its release by Tartan. As outlined in this exceptional article from Filmmaker Magazine, the existence of this second R1 release of Mysterious Skin stems from legal tussles between Araki and Tartan. While final product was not provided, it's explained within the article that Araki oversaw every step of this DVD, right down to the packaging. I'll detail the differences, resulting from a side-by-side comparison between the Tartan disc and the Strand disc, below.
This "deluxe unrated director's edition" of Mysterious Skin sports a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is ever so slightly clearer and sharper than the Tartan disc, which was a serviceable, if somewhat soft, image. The differences between the two are very, very slight but the Strand disc edges out the Tartan disc by a razor-thin margin.
Aurally, the Tartan disc blows Strand out of the water: all that Strand offers is a Dolby Digital 5.1 track and a Dolby 2.0 stereo track and while the Dolby Digital 5.1 track gets the job done, it can't hold a candle to Tartan's DTS 5.1 track in terms of warmth, space and atmospheric clarity. Strand, like Tartan, has included optional English subtitles but overall here, Tartan emerges victorious.
If it's bonus features you're after, then it's no contest: the Strand disc includes the exact same commentary track --a candid, relaxed chat from Araki, Gordon-Levitt and Corbet revealing the difficulties of getting the film made as well as each participant's reaction to the source material -- as was featured on the Tartan disc, along with the charmingly ragged 54 minute, 37 second full-screen featurette that highlights a "Mysterious Skin" book reading with Gordon-Levitt and Corbet that was also included on the Tartan disc. What didn't make the jump was the film's theatrical trailer and Tartan's batch of trailers for 9 Songs, Milwaukee Minnesota, Ma Mere and America Brown, but Araki included a few more extras: the film's original international trailer, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen; five minutes, 48 seconds of deleted scenes, presented in time-coded, non-anamorphic widescreen; eight minutes, four seconds of audition footage from Gordon-Levitt and Corbet with trailers for Head-On, Tony Takitani, Loggerheads and Ellie Parker completing the Strand disc. Strictly in terms of supplements, Strand wins easily.
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. That said, it depends on what you're looking for, although it's a search made trickier by the fact that the Tartan disc is now out of print. The Strand disc has a marginally better image and a far greater assortment of supplements, but lacks the wonderful DTS track that can be found on the Tartan disc. As this is the only R1 disc currently available, it will have to do until a disc boasting exceptional image and that DTS track can be created.