Based on the novel by Scott Heim, Gregg Araki's 2004 film Mysterious Skin takes place in rural Kansas where we meet two eight year old boys, Neil McCormack (Chase Ellison) and Brian Lackey (George Webster). When Brian was at a baseball game, he blacked out. He woke up he had blood running from his nose and he was hiding in the basement of his family's house. From here on out, for the next ten years at least, Brian continues to have nosebleeds and blackouts. When Brian is eighteen (and played then by Brady Corbet) he sees a TV show about a young woman named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who talks about her experience being abducted by aliens. He goes to meet her and she shows him a scar she believes to be evidence. This plants the seed in his mind and he becomes convinced that the black out at the baseball game and the ensuing nosebleeds were the result of an alien abduction.
But what about Brian's childhood friend, Neil? Well, Neil was really into baseball as an eight year old, so much so that he thought nothing of going back to the coach's (Bill Sage) place where, unbeknownst to anyone else, he was molested and abused multiple times over the span of one summer. As Neil grows into an eighteen year old man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), those experiences instill in him a burning need to please older men and before you know it he's working as a male prostitute simply because he feels that this is what he needs to do. As Neil comes to terms with his identity and his past, he becomes close to Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), a lovely young woman who obviously cares for Neil but who accepts him for who he is without a whole lot of questioning.
The two friends grew apart that summer. As they got older Neil started hanging out at the park and turning tricks while Brian was more or less glued to the library and hanging out with Avalyn. This relationship sours when her theories about probes take on a decidedly different tone, one which Brian's not necessarily comfortable with. Nail and Wendy wind up in New York at one point and Neil gives up hooking for fear of AIDS, instead dabbling with a job in fast food, but it doesn't last and he winds up back in Kansas where he reconnects with Brian who his hopeful that maybe he remembers something about that day.
A challenging and character driven film, Mysterious Skin takes on the subject of Neil's sexual orientation head on, not specifically stating that the abuse at the hands of his coach ‘turned' him into a gay man but rather implying he was always that way, that this is how he was made and this is how he was born. As Neil gets older and comes to terms with his identity, Gordon-Levitt's performance is remarkable and impressive. We forget he's the kid from Third Rock From The Sun and completely buy him in the part. Likewise, Brady Corbet delivers strong work here as a young man searching for answers that in a way he almost doesn't want to find. The child actors who play the younger versions of these characters are also very good and it's interesting to watch as the story evolves and the characters go along with it. Trachtenberg and Rajskub are also very good in their supporting roles, as is Elizabeth Shue as Neil's mother is also very good in her small but important part. Bill Sage is also really good here in a role that had to have been tough to play.
This is not a film that shies away from its subject matter. The issue of sexual abuse and the loss of innocence runs throughout the film and is obviously a central part of the story. At the same time, while it leaves little to the imagination in many ways it never overplays its hand or feels as if it's going for sensationalism or exploitation. It's a well paced picture, a thought provoking film and it is a very smart picture in how it shows us the way in which youthful naiveté can cloud memories, judgment and decision making as we age. There are some effective moments of dark comedy here that work well but the movie treats its subjects with a calm, controlled respect.
Mysterious Skin arrives on Blu-ray for the first time from Strand Releasing in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. This is a nice transfer, it looks quite film like. The grain structure doesn't appear to have been tweaked or scrubbed away but at the same time there isn't much in the way of actual print damage to complain about. As such, we get clean film like image that offers solid depth and detail as well as good color reproduction. There are a few spots where shadow detail is less than amazing in some of the darker scenes but this would appear to have more to do with the original photography and lighting than anything else. There aren't any obvious compression issues nor are there any edge enhancement problems to note. All in all, this is a strong image and a very nice upgrade over the DVD.
Audio options are provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and LPCM 2.0 options, both in English, with optional closed captioning provided in English only. The 5.1 mix has good depth and range, especially when it comes to the soundtrack, which is spread around quite effectively through the different channels in the mix. The levels are nicely balanced and dialogue sounds quite clean and clear throughout the movie on both tracks. There are no issues with hiss or distortion and while this is a fairly dialogue heavy film and not one loaded with effects heavy set pieces, the audio here gets a nice boost over the DVD as well.
The main extra on the disc is a commentary track with director Gregg Araki and leads Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet. This was included on the previous DVD release from years back but it's good enough to definitely warrant being ported over to this new release. It's a busy track that covers adapting the source material, character development and plot themes/ideas but which also gives us a feel for what it was like on set and what went into getting this movie finished.
The disc also includes a twenty three minute featurettes entitled Conversation Between Joseph Gordon-Levitt & Brady Corbet At Sundance 2014. Shot in a hotel room, here the two actors look back on the movie and discuss how they feel about how it turned out and what it was like working on it. Also included here is a fifty-five minute long Book Reading. This is done with Corbet and Gordon-Levitt handling the voice work and capturing it all on video. It's a pretty interesting dramatic reading of the source material. The eight minute Novelist Scott Heim Reflects 10 Years Later allows the author of the book that the movie was based on to look back at the story he told and the movie that was made from it.
Rounding out the supplements are a two minute Director Introduction, a Script & Sketches Still Gallery, a Photo Gallery, an Isolated Score And Effects Track in DTS-HD Master Audio, six minutes of Deleted Scenes (three scenes in total), eight minutes of Actor Audition Tape clips, the film's original International Trailer, menus and chapter selection.
Mysterious Skin is a really well directed and expertly acted adaptation of a book that had to have been challenging to bring to the silver screen. It's a smart film, one ripe with interesting and believable characters, some of which are all too human and therefore all too flawed. This isn't one for the feel good movie of the year crowd as it touches on some sensitive issues, but it does so with the right mix of style and sensitivity. The Blu-ray release from Strand is a very good one, showing nice improvements over the DVD in both the audio and video departments and with a great selection of extra features to sift through as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.