In the summer of 1981, two 8-year-old boys join a baseball team in their small Kansas town. Brian, shy and awkward, joins to satisfy his demanding father, while Neil, precocious and willful, joins to give his mother more time alone with her boyfriends. Although they are not friends, both boys have a life-altering experience that summer. Brian is found in his basement after a game, having awakened from a mysterious blackout with a nosebleed. His mother, sure he has been injured during a game, makes him quit the team. Neil spends much of his free time with the team’s coach (Bill Sage), who encourages the fatherless youth to be his “special friend.”
Ten years later, Brian and Neil are young men, and the events of that summer are affecting their lives in ways they don’t fully understand. Brian (Brady Corbet) has become convinced he was abducted by aliens and blacked out during their experiments; Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has developed into a shrewd hustler who recruits clients, older men, at the local playground. Eventually their separate lives intersect and lead them to come to terms with the unfortunate truth about the summer of 1981.
Based on the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin makes several shifts between 1981 and 1991 and required a look that was both realistic and occasionally surreal. Impressed by the work director of photography Steve Gainer, ASC had done on Larry Clark’s Bully, Mysterious Skin director/writer Gregg Araki offered his project to Gainer. The cinematographer made the most of the material, creating many instances of magic-hour lighting; farmland tableaux; harsh, urban exteriors; and ethereal, dreamlike sequences. The film runs the gamut visually, from the blinding, white kitchen light of the opening sequence to the lonely darkness that surrounds the characters in the final scene. Through his lighting, Gainer creates an impressive array of shadows, illuminating the many layers of blacks on display.
Mysterious Skin recently arrived on DVD courtesy of Tartan/TLA Releasing, with its look well preserved. The transfer’s lighting levels always seem faithful to the film, and even the darkest scenes feature no distortion. The transfer is remarkably sharp, with some visible grain giving attention to detail throughout the frame. The sound is available in Digital Dolby 5.1 and DTS tracks, and although the latter features slightly more bass, there is little difference between the two; both are excellent, offering well-developed surround elements.
The DVD features a commentary by Araki, Corbet and Gordon-Levitt, and although the speakers offer a few insights into the production, they eventually seem to be grasping to find something important to say. Not all filmmakers and actors excel at audio commentaries, and it’s a shame a straightforward interview wasn’t included instead. The disc also offers a strange but engaging hour-long video segment of Corbet and Gordon-Levitt reading aloud from Heim’s novel on a street in Los Angeles, as well as the film’s theatrical trailer and a selection of other TLA Releasing trailers.
Released in U.S. theaters unrated, Mysterious Skin played to a limited audience last year. This is unfortunate, because a film that deals so sensitively and effectively with the prevalent problem of child abuse deserves to be seen. The difficult burden of such abuse — the overwhelming sense of loneliness and alienation that the crime can inflict on its victim — is at the heart of Mysterious Skin, giving the picture a keen social conscience. Without judging either of its main characters, two very different men, the film certainly involves us in their painful coming of age.