As we sat there listening to the carolers, I wanted to tell Brian that it was over now and that everything would be okay. But that was a lie, plus I couldn’t speak anyway. I wish there was some way to go back and undo the past. But there wasn’t. There was nothing we could do. So I just stayed silent and tried to telepathically communicate how sorry I was about what happened. And I thought of all the grief and suffering and fucked up stuff in the world, and it made me want to escape. I wished with all my heart we could just leave this world behind. Rise like two angels in the night and magically disappear.
I’ve recently been re-watching the TV Show “Third Rock From The Sun” and I was immensely impressed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance as Tommy, an alien stuck in the body of an adolescent boy and trying to cope with the rigours of growing up. Gordon-Levitt’s performance throughout the run time was amazing to watch but he then seemingly disappeared from mainstream media until an appearance in the anti-romantic comedy “500 Days of Summer”.
Since then he has enjoyed a surge into the Hollywood A-List with roles such as Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, Lincoln and several other excellent films. I was however curious what he had done in between TRFTS and 500 Days of Summer, so whilst searching for a new film to review I decided to look into his past films and I came across this unusual looking movie.
It wasn’t just Gordon-Levitt that drew my attention to the film though, more specifically it was the appearances of Brady Corbet and Michelle Trachtenberg, the former of which had been spectacular in the 2007 home-invasion thriller “Funny Games”.
The one thing that did make me nervous about this that the trailer made it look like it was going to be one of those heavily pretentious films that has become all too familiar with indie films. I have reviewed films in the past, such as Frank (click for review), and slaughtered them for thinking they are more important that they actually are. Some movies do have the feeling that they think they’re amazing when they’re not, and this did strike me as one of those films, but I decided to give it a chance.
When he was a child Brian (Corbet – Adult, George Webster – child) lost five hours of his life and the aftermath ruined the rest of his life. Several years later he is still searching for answers about what happened to him, not helped by numerous flashbacks. He becomes obsessed with documentaries about alien abductions and believes that it was happened to him. He contacts one of those featured in a documentary, a girl by the name of Avalyn (Rajskub) and she helps him come to an epiphany about how he can figure out what happened to him.
During his youth, Neil (Gordon Levitt – Adult, Chase Ellison – child) was the star player on the baseball team due to his attraction to his baseball coach. He is soon molested by his coach but mistakes it for a reward for his good performances. Several years later, Neil has started prostituting himself out and doesn’t understand the concept of safe sex. He becomes depressed when he realises that he has had some form of sexual contact with pretty much every man in his town and he subsequently moves to New York to be with his friend Wendy (Trachtenberg).
Neil struggles to adapt to New Yorkian life (if that’s a phrase) and after being violently raped, he soon moves back and meets up with Brian, helping him to try and find the answers that he has been looking for.
As good as I’d hoped?
I’ve been sat here during the film wondering whether I like the film or not and am still relatively unsure. Normally I can tell within the first ten minutes if I am not going to like a film and often the ones I enjoy are the ones where I don’t realise until half way through that I haven’t thought once about my opinion on it, but with this I am completely unsure. Is it awful? No, not by any stretch, but calling it anything more than reasonable would probably be a push.
Let’s start with the positives. Gordon-Levitt is fantastic throughout. The one thing that you can always guarantee with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is that he throws himself into a role and he’s not afraid to do different things. Every time you watch him, he is playing different roles and I love actors with diversity. He can portray emotion so well, with one of my personal favourite performances of his coming in the final few minutes of the film 50/50, a film where he plays a man who gets cancer and the fear as he goes into the final operation, that moment when it dawns on him that he could easily die from the operation is so well acted.
Infact, before I go ahead with the rest of the review, here is that scene from 50/50. I really, really, really, really wish I could review 50/50, it is an incredible film, but it is too well known to be reviewed on a site that is designed to highlight films that the vast, vast majority will never have heard of.
Anyway, back to the review. In Mysterious Skin there is a scene early on the character’s adult life when he is basically prostituting himself out and he is receiving a blow-job off of a junk-food salesman, and although the scene doesn’t move off of Gordon-Levitt’s face once the sexual act starts, the facial expressions and change in emotions from him tell you everything you need to know. This continues throughout the film and his emotions become more unwary throughout, especially after he moves to New York and is asked to give a massive to an HIV positive man and the scene where he is violently raped by a stranger. The latter of those also focuses purely on his face as he is getting raped, whilst also being beaten with a bottle of shampoo (yes, that does actually happen)
One thing I will definitely say for indie films is that the acting is usually better than that of Hollywood films, and for me the stand out scenes occur between Neil as a child and his young coach. There is a scene at the beginning and one towards the end between the two and they draw you in because of the exquisite acting of the two on screen. On one side you’ve got a young boy discovering his sexuality for the first time and realising that he is gay, and on the other you have his paedophile coach that you find dangerously charming. It is that aspect of his personality that is particularly interesting as you realise just how dangerous that paedophiles can be and how manipulative they are.
You don’t realise at all how dangerous and manipulative he is until the final scene, when you realise something more terrifying. I’m not going to talk about it here but will go into it at the end.
That scene helps establish the foundations of Neil as a character and he is excellently developed. The way that the scene where he is sexually assaulted by his baseball coach as a child is set up to be a massive part of his personality but it doesn’t seem to have really affected him at all in many ways, probably being his misinterpreted it as a reward rather than what it was. Every scene with the character You are constantly learning new aspects to him and I love that. I hate characters that stand still and that leads me neatly onto talking about Brian.
Whilst Neil is a very interesting and deep character, Brian doesn’t really do anything for me. It takes until the 35th minute for him to leave the house but his character never really develops beyond someone who wants to find out what happened to him when he was younger. There is literally no other character trait to him throughout. Corbet does a good job as the confused and socially awkward young man, but the character just isn’t that interesting.
Infact, it takes 75 minutes for the character to really show any emotions other than a seemingly passive curiousity towards his situation when he sees his father for the first time in two years. Suddenly, after being largely unemotional throughout the film, Brian launches into a mini-rant that actually showed a minor bit of depth to the character, but other than that burst out there was nothing really there with the character. He is simply a character that happens to be on screen, and emotionally he doesn’t seem there. There is such a huge contrast between him and Neil that it’s character to make a fair comparison between the two.
It’s almost strange to have two main characters and yet only one them is actually engaging and interesting. The fact that the majority of the first half of the film focuses on him rather than Brian shows just how different there is in depth between the characters. Infact the story-arcs of the two characters feel completely unconnected until the 43rd minute when it’s hinted that the two the answers that Brian seeks are related to Neil.
I’m not going to lie, this would have been a better film without the character of Brian or his story-arc. It feels like it should be an entirely different film and it would actually make a half decent stand alone sci-fi movie, but the lack of connection between the two arcs for the majority of the story, other than the most tedious of links, really would knock the overall score of the film down (if I did a scoring system), however, then comes the ending that links everything together. Granted, the character of Brian still lacks something and when you realise what actually happened to his character, it does feel like you’ve wasted your time with him for most of the movie, even if it is a brilliant ending.
Finally, I’m going to talk about something that I briefly touched on earlier in the review and that is the final scene. I don’t often spoil a scene towards the end of a movie so if you want to watch the movie and don’t want it spoilt, this is your warning that between now and where the summary section is, all I’m going to talk about is that scene.
Still believing he was abducted, Brian is taken to the house of the coach that molested Neil as a child and it is revealed that in the five hours missing from his childhood, the coach took both to his home after Brian’s parents failed to show up after a baseball game. In the five hours Neil, who had been manipulated by the coach, convinces Brian that the molestation that both he and the coach are about to perform is a very natural and beautiful thing. When the sexual acts are over, Brian collapsed on the floor, giving him the blood nose and causing a concussion that wiped his memory. The film ends with a traumatised Brian crying on Neil’s knees with Christmas carollers signing Silent Night in the background.
For me this is one of the more unique endings to a film that I have ever seen, and it is somehow a twist ending because you really don’t see it coming at all. The flashback highlights just how dangerous the coach was because he manipulated a young child into believing that debauchery was a good thing for an adult to inflict on someone who is underage and it is played out brilliantly. The innocence of the children is corrupted and ruins both for life, simply because of one man’s desire.
The ending changed it for me because it connected everything properly, but up until that the movie is dominated by two very differing storylines that don’t seem even slightly connected, even to the point where they don’t even seem like they belong in the same movie. The ending does make it slightly more worth it and brings a good, natural conclusion to events, but before then the character-arc of Brian just isn’t interesting enough to hold the film together, and the fact that the majority of the film is focused on Neil shows that.
Neil is an excellent character and is well acted by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but I didn’t care for the character of Brian for the most part and whilst he is well acted by Corbet, whenever he was on the screen I was just wanting it to go back to Neil, and it’s never a good thing when you’re not interested in one of the two main characters.
It’s not a great movie, I feel that current rating of 7.7/10 on IMDB is a tiny bit high, if I did a scoring system I would give it somewhere in the high sixes/low sevens region.