Gregg Araki likes to shock. That's no secret to anyone who has followed the director's career, but a cartoonish layer of unreality has usually kept the polymorphous sexual pairings and graphic violence somewhat at a distance. There's a little bit of that in Mysterious Skin, but mostly it stays grounded in the real world. Araki seems to have finally taken in a few Todd Solondz movies, then realized that abusing actor James Duval delivers nowhere near the shock value of abusing children. Let's put it this way: If you're Michael Jackson, this is the movie for you. If not, you're gonna find it creepy. It's not even possible to review it without describing at least some of the nasty stuff that goes on, so readers of a sensitive persuasion are advised to stop right here.
As trippy music plays over the opening credits, it looks like leaves are falling down over a white background. Only as the focus finally sharpens do we realize that they are in fact Froot Loops, falling on the head of 8-year-old Neil (Chase Ellison). We'll get back to him eventually, and realize the disturbing implications of the cereal, but first comes the story of another 8-year-old named Brian (George Webster), who suffers a couple of blackouts that induce bloody noses and decides that alien abduction must have been responsible.
Then back to Neil, experiencing his first orgasm while watching his mom (Elisabeth Shue, in full-on drunken-slut mode) have sex with a random guy he describes in voice-over as "all Marlboro Man, dumb as a fuckin' rock -- what I would years later call my type." Forced to play Little League so that his mom can have free time to copulate, Neil is immediately awestruck by the coach (Bill Sage), a well-built man with blond hair and a porn-star mustache. The feeling is mutual. Coach's house turns out to be stocked with video games, junk food, and everything else a boy could want. Get the boy there, and the coach has what he wants.
Neil reacts by becoming just as cynical and abusive, at one point kidnapping another boy on Halloween, shooting bottle rockets out of his mouth, then masturbating him to ensure he'll be too embarrassed to tell anyone. By the time he's a teenager (now played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, leaving 3rd Rock From the Sun waaaay behind), Neil's become a hustler, hanging out in the park until creepy middle-aged men offer him a ride.
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Meanwhile, Brian has grown up to be played by Brady Corbet (Thirteen, Thunderbirds), who has a vibe not unlike Goonies-era Sean Astin. After watching a TV special on alien abduction, he contacts one of the subjects, an awkward, limping girl named Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who shows him her scars and persuades him to interpret his dreams. When he does, it leads him to memories of Neil, whom he seeks out in order to determine the truth -- which of course involves something worse than aliens. Interestingly, this isn't the first time Araki has made the connection between aliens and gay sex (an obvious one if you think about the stereotypical "anal probes" those gray beings allegedly use) -- Nowhere was full of such imagery, though in a much more exaggerated fashion.
Before the two boys meet, however, Araki dwells mostly on Neil's hustling adventures, which, while not including full-frontal nudity, feature such charming details as the graphic sounds of a john gagging on ejaculate, then rinsing his mouth out; a man covered in AIDS lesions; and ultimately a violent sexual assault. The pace isn't relentless, as we get moments of humor and beauty in between, but the movie relishes the sordid details above anything else, in a way that's likely to alienate viewers who might otherwise appreciate the acting and the story.
As always, Araki has assembled a hip and moody soundtrack featuring the likes of Curve, Slowdive, the Cocteau Twins, and Sigur Rós. He has made one notable music-related mistake, however -- the car driven by one of the characters in 1991 is decorated with the red fist logo from Metallica's St. Anger album a decade before that particular disc exists.
So is Mysterious Skin a good movie? Hard to say. Araki has always walked that fine line between genius and suckitude -- it's still hard to decide whether The Doom Generation is brilliant or total crap. Mostly, Mysterious Skin creeps you out, and not in any kind of fun way. There's an artfulness to it, but it's hard to imagine many viewers actually using the term "enjoyed" or "entertained" in conjunction with it.