Color, 2004, 105 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Gregg Araki
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Elisabeth Shue, Jeff Licon, Michelle Trachtenberg, Bill Sage, Chris Mulkey, Billy Drago
Camera Obscura (Blu-ray & DVD) (Austria RB/R2 HD/PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Strand Releasing (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC)
After provoking the American indie film world in the '90s with films like The Living End and The Doom Generation, writer-director Gregg Araki entered the current millennium with a bang courtesy of Mysterious Skin, his biggest breakthrough film to date. Tossing out the absurdist dark humor (well, for the most part) and soapboxing that were trademarks of his earlier films, he dug deep here for a blistering look at the effects of childhood trauma and helped firmly establish Joseph Gordon-Levitt as an actor more than capable of making the transition from his juvenile sitcom days.
Childhood friends Neil (Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Corbet) have both been permanently marked by a disturbing summer when they were eight years old, which involved the former being abused by their Little League coach (Sage) and the latter losing time for several hours only to regain consciousness with a bloody nose. After working as a hustler for several years in Manhattan, Neil decides to get a regular job while Brian is haunted by strange dreams and believes he was abducted by aliens. With adulthood proving to be just as difficult to navigate as childhood, the two are destined to have their paths crossed again when Neil decides to pay a visit back home and they both come to grips with the secret from their past.
Despite the extremely dicey subject matter that would probably make this film infinitely more difficult to make today, Mysterious Skin is extremely compassionate and goes out of its way to avoid exploiting its young actors during the childhood scenes. The implications are definitely queasy and pave the way for the most overtly violent passages into adulthood (with Gordon-Levitt bearing the brunt of the most harrowing moments), but the fact that this had to go out unrated in the U.S. after being slapped with an NC-17 rating (and being denied on appeal) does make one wonder what the thought process was at the MPAA at the time. The stylized approach to the film (including the "alien" flashbacks and fantasy sequences) helps make it easier to process as well, and the cast is loaded with heavy hitters including Twin Peaks' Chris Mulkey, Elisabeth Shue, and a very good Michelle Trachtenberg stepping way outside of her Buffy constraints here. As usual, Araki's biggest strength here is his depiction of outsides, in this case a motley crew of "weird kids" on the fringes of society who still maintain viewer sympathy throughout. The real monsters here are the ones who seem normal, using respectability as a cloak to prey at will. Seen today, the film is a key entry in both the New Queer Cinema movement (alongside earlier films like Poison, My Own Private Idaho, and Swoon) and the boundary-pushing indies that had been flourishing since the 90's renaissance.
Regularly available uncut on home video since it first hit DVD in 2006 (from Stand Releasing in the U.S. and Tartan in the U.K., Mysterious Skin first hit Blu-ray from Strand in 2014. The label's iffy track record with masters and compression isn't the hottest, but this was one of their better releases with a reasonable presentation from an HD scan framed at 1.78:1 with only issues throughout. In addition to 5.1 DTS-HD MA and 2.0 PCM English audio options (plus an isolated music and effects track), that release also ports over a very good, sincere audio commentary for the DVD releases with Araki, Gordon-Levitt and Corbet, all of whom are very appreciative to have made the film and look back on it as a watershed in their careers. It also features a reel of deleted scenes in SD (5m49s), script sketches, a photo gallery, a video reflection by novelist Scott Heim (8m5s), a director intro, a 2014 Sundance retrospective interview in a very yellow room (22m16s) with Gordon-Levitt and Corbet (who went on to direct Vox Lux), an audition tape (8m5s, and a trailer. An outdoor book reading with the two leads (54m41s) shot on a camcorder is worth checking out as well, especially if you're on the fence about how the book might compare to its cinematic interpretation.
In 2020, Austrian label Camera Obscura offered its own expanded Blu-ray variant as a limited edition mediabook with the feature on a Blu-ray (also containing the U.S. and U.K. trailers) and the extras both new and preexisting on a second DVD, which is fine since those were SD in the first place. Here you get English and German DTS-HD MA 5.1 tracks with optional German subtitles, and the framing has been slightly adjusted to the 1.85:1 seen in theatrical release (with a slight hair visible vertically). The authoring job is visibly improved here in motion with a more deft compression job and the film given far more breathing room, which particularly helps during the darker moments (including the entire final scene). The commentary is carried over here as well for the feature, which also sports a brief new optional director intro (33s). The DVD contains the Sundance chat, the Haim appraisal, the audition tape, the book reading, and the deleted scenes from the earlier release. You also get an Araki interview (24m56s) for a French screening of the film (editing together an audience intro and a backstage chat) is definitely worth seeing as he looks back at how he discovered the source novel and embarked on his first adapted film, as well as the labor of love atmosphere with everyone working hard for far less money than usual. He also goes into detail about how the child actors were protected throughout with no idea of the harsher elements of the story. The striking embossed packaging also features a German liner notes booklet.
Reviewed on November 20, 2020