Any prospective viewer of this movie should be warned in advance: you will want to shower the filth off of you when you’re done with MYSTERIOUS SKIN. While the copy on the back of the DVD case doesn’t lie (except in one case), it certainly doesn’t give an accurate summary of the movie.
Meet Brian Lackey. He’s an awkward kid, eight-years-old, who is an absolute disaster at little league baseball games. However, there is a gap in his memory. Something so horrible happened to him in that time that the rest of his childhood is plagued with bloody noses, shortly followed by fainting spells. He constantly wets the bed. He is incapable of human contact outside of his own family. After a late night viewing of a movie, he is convinced that during that gap, he’d been abducted by a UFO and experimented on.
Meet Neil McCormick. He’s Brian’s exact opposite. He’s outgoing, great at little league, and a generally happy kid. However, there is something off about him, something that his little league coach recognizes and tries to encourage . . . by sexually abusing young Neil.
Fast forward a few years until both Brian and Neil are 18. Neither of them know each other, but they are destined for a meeting. Brian pretty much confines himself to home, where he is a momma’s boy. He is obsessed with alien abductions and soon learns through a television program that someone in a town 30 miles from his own has been abducted, and he goes to her for help, as no one else is willing to do so. Meanwhile, Neil spends his time recklessly prostituting himself. (This is where the copy on the DVD case lied. It called him a hustler, not what he actually is. It's like whoever distributed this movie was ashamed of it and didn't want to tell the truth about what happens in it.) While he’s still outgoing and attractive, there is something dark and empty about his soul. When his best friend in the world, Wendy (played by Michelle Trachtenberg), moves to New York, he decides to up his game and follow her. You see, he’s sick of Kansas, and he thinks he can make some real money in the big bad city.
Brady Corbet, who plays the adult Brian, is amazing in his awkwardness. Viewers have no choice but to cringe, watching him in action, coming so close to understanding what is going on around him, but never quite getting there. On the other hand, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Neil, is holy-fuck-over-the-top-is-this-really-happening awesome. The man has absolutely no fear in the graphic scenes he has to take part in. Most notably is the one in which he is paid, by a character played by the eternally creepy Billy Drago, a fellow who very clearly is suffering from AIDS, to rub his lesion-ridden back and jerk off. His hands kneading that awful, stomach-turning flesh is one of the grimmest images put to film.
Or how about when Richard Riehle (mostly known as the Jump to Conclusions guy from OFFICE SPACE) lustily rubs at Gordon-Levitt’s crotch, lasciviously opening his pants so he can suck Neil’s cock so hard he leaves bruises?
And then there is the ugly scene in which Neil is viciously beaten and raped while coming home from his real job at a sandwich shop. There is a reason Gordon-Levitt is the hottest rising star in Hollywood right now; he will go to any lengths to get the performance he needs.
But Corbet and Gordon-Levitt are small potatoes compared to the kids who play their younger selves. (Their names are Chase Ellison and George Webster.) They have to do something that very few other children actors do; they have to play victims of sexual abuse in some pretty graphic scenes. Granted, there is no actual child pornography in this movie. The scenes are so suggestive though, it would sicken any viewer who isn’t actually a kid toucher. But these scenes are never done to titillate. No, these are supposed to be grim and ugly scenes.
The coach, played by Bill Sage, is handsome in an ‘Eighties kind of way, kind of like Cary Elwes, but his mustache belongs on a biker. It’s like he walked right out of a cigarette ad. He manipulates Neil in such a way that is very creepy, but not to young Neil’s way of thinking, meaning he doesn’t understand the implications of what is happening to him, it all seems reasonable. Being kissed by the coach is normal. Having his genitals fondled is an everyday occurrence. Sticking his fist up the coach’s ass is just a couple of guys hanging out.
When they are starting to form their relationship, the coach takes a few Polaroids of Neil holding a microphone up to his mouth like a cock. There are a few goofy pictures, too, but the coach’s favorite is the one when he sticks his finger into Neil’s mouth.
Grossed out yet? Good. That’s the reaction this movie is going for. Because when this shit happens to little boys, they tend to grow up just like Neil. Morally and emotionally void. That’s the warning of this film.
Either that, or they turn out like Brian. Ineffectual and afraid of any human contact. When he starts developing a friendship with his fellow abductee, played by Mary Lynn Rajskub (Chloe from 24!), she mistakes his attention for romantic inclination. She tries to kiss him, but he turns her away. Thinking he’s playing hard to get, she tries to open his pants up, to give him a blow job, swearing that it will feel good, but he freaks out and completely severs all ties with her.
SPOILER ALERT: In case you couldn’t tell (and it is pretty obvious throughout the movie), Brian wasn’t abducted by aliens. He was abducted by not only the coach, but also Neil. The scene when Brian and Neil meet as adults is shocking and possibly the saddest in cinematic history. Brian remembers none of this, and Neil has to explain what happened. END OF SPOILERS.
It isn’t often a piece of art like this comes along, not afraid to explore the deepest, nastiest corners of human nature. It’s too easy to tell a story about child abuse that merely destroys its victim. Here, writer and director Gregg Araki goes that extra mile and shows how child abuse continues in ever-widening cycles.
Not convinced? While Neil is still a kid, he and Wendy trick an awkward, Brian-like character away from his group of friends and make him hold bottle rockets in his mouth. He then lights them, which horribly ruins the poor kid’s mouth. Neil then makes it up to the guy by sucking his dick before Wendy's horrified eyes.
That’s the key: the coach has so rewired Neil’s brain that Neil thinks everything he did with the coach is normal. So why wouldn’t he do that stuff to other people, too? Perhaps that’s the most horrifying part of this movie.
No, this film is not for everyone, but it is a work of art. It will change your life. It will disturb you. What more can you ask from art?