After a movie like Mysterious Skin, I always wonder how many of my fellow Americans have been sodomized by adults in positions of authority. When I think back to my own carefree days of youth, I too joined Little League, spent time around grown men, and had an uncle or two who was, by all appearances, still functioning below the waist, so how did I escape the vilest of all crimes? Without sounding like the young man in Happiness who sobbed after hearing that his father would not do him the honor of buggery, I wonder how I managed to achieve adulthood without once being exploited. The two boys of Gregg Arakiís new film arenít so fortunate, and for one of the few times in cinema, child rape isnít oversimplified or reduced to cheap platitudes. As much as there is no redemption for Neil and Brian, nor is there nihilism; instead, there is only a path to understanding that may or may not begin the healing process. In other words, it would be quite easy to imagine these two characters moving forward with even more self-destructive behavior, if not suicidal despair. Itís a film about rape and hideous cruelty that gets it right because, in order to bring the unknowing into this world, the images must be stark and the recreations vivid and uncompromising. We canít cut away when things get rough, nor can we imply the pain that we know exists. Still, there can be no judgment, despite the compelling case for righteous anger. Who knew that the director of one of the most inept motion pictures of our time — The Doom Generation — had such poetry in him?
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Neil, a male hustler who plies his trade in the parks of uptight Hutchinson, Kansas, and Brady Corbet is Brian, a shy, geeky young man who remains convinced that ten years before, he was abducted by aliens for bizarre experimental purposes. After all, he has a gap in time that cannot be filled or explained, and it seems reasonable to his warped mind that he was victimized by otherworldly creatures. Needless to say, he was raped during those lost hours, but it takes him the entire film to figure this out (and only after finally sitting down with Neil after a brief search). Brianís initial belief is sad, of course, and itís not intended to be a mystery for us to decipher. It is one of the enduring truths of our culture, after all, that “alien abduction” has become the psychological substitute for molestation (usually at the hands of a family member), although Iím sure there are isolated cases of phonies who simply want attention. Brian runs across a young woman, for example, who appears to be one of those loonies, but it is to the filmís credit that it never fully explains her story. We can guess that she too was violated by her father or perhaps a visiting relative, but we donít really know. As it stands, sheís trying to help Brian reach the truth, only in ways she doesnít realize.
Neilís tale is a fascinating descent into true pathology, but it presents an interesting moral question that Araki may not have realized. Although Neil expresses lust for his Little League coach before being molested (and even masturbates while thinking of the man screwing his mother), it could be argued that this film is suggesting that being sodomized by a man turns you gay. We all know that homosexuality is almost exclusively decided at (or before) birth, but given Neilís later adventures in the male sex trade, we are led to believe that his destiny might have been different were it not for the coach and that long, hot summer all those years before. That is not to say that Araki argues it either way, but he does feed the fires of those who believe one event causes the other. I would guess instead that Araki is saying that Neilís path in life is more about self-loathing than any particular sexual identity, because it is clear that he is willfully courting danger by his actions in such a conservative, homophobic community. In his mind, he was brutalized by a figure he idolized, and now he uses sex to fill a void that was created by a lack of any real guidance or love.
Neil eventually moves to New York City, where his small town assumptions about his trade are quickly disabused. Perhaps it is expected that he encounter a beefy redneck type who beats the shit out of him during a sexual encounter, but the scene is rendered with such objectivity that its obligatory status can be forgiven. Even Neilís encounter with a john who is obviously in the latter stages of AIDS is handled with a quiet power, as what at first appears to be a suicidal mission turns into a suffering manís final request for human tenderness. Again, Mysterious Skin hasnít broken any molds or revolutionized the approach to the all-American affliction, but rather seeks only to present these characters as they are and allow for the audience to make up its own mind. Yes, these two boys are victims in the conventional sense, but we donít feel sorry for them like theyíre helpless puppies in need of shelter. That would be condescension, and Araki would rather we journey along with them, rather than from the sidelines in a privileged position.
One of the most effective scenes in the film occurs when Brian, returning home to encounter his absent father, screams with rage at his failure to protect him from the predator of long ago. Brian doesnít come right out and speak the truth, but hints at the pain he felt after being abandoned and left to the wolves. Did his father know what happened during those lost moments? Could he have known? Regardless, the scene expresses the essential truth about how children feel towards their parents: kids can be unreasonable, hostile, and claim to desire independence from an early age, but there is no greater betrayal in the life cycle of a human being than to feel one has been left unprotected by oneís guardians. To believe that oneís parents have knowingly allowed pain to occur is perhaps something that children carry with them until the grave, without the possibility of repair or forgiveness. This hints at an explanation as to why people often hate the silent, ďinnocentĒ mother while stifling much of the rage towards the abusive father. After all, is it worse to inflict damage, or stand by and do nothing while it occurs? Thankfully, Araki doesnít force us to choose.