Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Movie Review: Mysterious Skin

Or: "So THAT'S What Tommy Solomon's O-Face Looks Like. I'm Going To Hell."

Well... that was weird.

I'm really not sure how to review this movie, because it has a lot going for it, and a lot going against it, and a lot that could have made it better than it turned out to be.

Structurally, there are two plotlines running throughout the movie. The first concerns Neil McCormick (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with surprising conviction), a rent-boy who drifts aimlessly from client to client, trapped in his pointless small-town life. The second plotline concerns Brian Lackey, a withdrawn and troubled teen who spends every waking moment trying to figure out what's gone wrong with his life (a stark contrast to Neil).

In what appears to be an intentional move on writer Gregg Araki's part, these two plotlines never intersect until the very end of the movie, despite the fact that there's clearly some mysterious link between the protagonists. While this might have been an attempt to build suspense, it has the unfortunate side effect of rendering Neil's storyline pretty boring - aside from having sex every now and then, he doesn't do much of anything. Any relationships he has with other characters are maintained by them, not by him. There's one scene towards the end of the movie where he gets in way over his head and pays the price, but it doesn't lead anywhere. Overall he's a pretty flat character. Brian's journey would be the part that's meant to hold our attention, except...

Except that, at first glance, "Mysterious Skin" seems to be a psychological mystery: Brian and Neil both shared the same traumatic experience when they were children, yet they each recall it differently. Brian remembers it as alien abduction, while Neil remembers it as molestation. And Brian's the one who's trying to find out the truth. The problem, of course, is that the question doesn't necessarily need an answer. On a purely psychological level, it really can go both ways: either they were molested and Brian created an alien fantasy to cope, or they were abducted and Neil constructed an elaborate (and, more importantly, realistic) scenario in his head. Memory is unreliable, we know this and it's been the subject of many fascinating films, but in trying to resolve the issue, Araki inadvertantly makes it clear that there's only one way it can go. As a result, anything in Brian's storyline regarding his search for the truth is rendered moot because he's looking in all the wrong places, and we know this long before he does. His rapport with fellow abductee Avalyn (who initially provides support for Brian's theory) goes south at the drop of a pin, and not very convincingly.

To Araki's credit, he doesn't get caught up in cliches regarding sexual abuse: Neil has a pretty positive outlook on the whole experience, claiming he was in love with his abuser anyway, that getting deflowered at age eight made him understand the truth about his sexuality (though you could pretty much go for a "chicken or the egg" argument there). Brian follows the more conventional route of repressing sexuality altogether, to the extent that it's not clear whether he's into guys or girls at all because the thought of intercourse with another human being is repulsive to him.

At the end of the movie, the two characters finally meet, and Neil tells Brian exactly what happened, in excruciating detail. But again, Araki cuts the scene short at that vital moment where everything Brian ever believed in is lying in ruins. It's not enough of a resolution to the character arcs or to the movie as a whole, because Neil isn't much affected by Brian's breakdown (why should he be? He already knew, and never saw himself as a victim). There's no connection, no reason to care about what Brian's next step will be.

A few superfluous characters run about without adding anything relevant to the story: Wendy Peterson is played by Michelle Trachtenberg, who - years after her stint on Buffy - still arouses a desire on my part to slap her until her head detaches. Eric is Neil's best friend and, of course, is in love with him (another subplot that goes nowhere, because Neil doesn't know or doesn't care).

I can't really recommend "Mysterious Skin" because it spends most of its time building expectations that are never fulfilled. The moment you figure out what happened to those two kids, you've solved the riddle - and more likely than not, it'll be long before the movie's actually over.