Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin, from the novel by Scott Heim, is an overwhelming, absolutely devastating film: not because, but in spite of, the fact that it is about the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. Araki treats the subject without the demonization (of the abuser) or martyrology (of the victims) that have become such cliches in the last ten or twenty years.
The movie tells the intertwined stories of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), both of whom were abused by their Little League coach when they were eight years old. In the present time of the film (1991), they have had no contact with one another since that time; they are now both nineteen. Brian has repressed the experience: he only knows that something important happened to him at age 8; he suspects that he was abducted by aliens, and he wants to find out what really happened. He’s nerdy, touchingly sympathetic in his confusion, extremely nervous, and seemingly asexual. Neil, on the other hand, remembers everything perfectly. At eight, he already knew that he was gay. He felt wounded by the coach’s seduction, but also sexually excited by it, and grateful for the attention. In retrospect, the coach has become Neil’s erotic ideal, his lost love object. At nineteen, Neil is broodingly narcissistic, emotionally hard and closed off and withdrawn into himself. He has become a hustler, compulsively turning tricks with older men who remind him of the coach, turned on by the impersonality (and occasional abuse) of these encounters, and seemingly indifferent to their dangers (AIDS, and sometimes direct physical harm). Both actors (and the supporting cast as well) give amazing performances, sensitive and finely nuanced, attuned both to their characters’ vulnerabilities, and — most importantly — to what these characters are unable to understand, or articulate, about themselves. Gordon-Levitt and Corbet make the gaps and absences present, as it were, in their performances.
In the course of the film, Brian endeavors to work through his own awkwardness and discover what really happened to him; and Neil has a series of sexual encounters, some quite moving (a guy with Karposi’s sarcoma scars who just wants Neil to rub his back), and others downright horrific (especially an encounter with a brutal top). At the end, Brian finally finds Neil, who fills him in on what happened to them both a decade earlier. Brian learns the truth, and Neil realizes for the first time how great was the emotional cost of what happened. That’s really all there is in terms of plot.
But the genius and beauty of Araki’s film is that it doesn’t really abide by the terms of this schematically therapeutic narrative. There’s no past recovered, no redemption, and nothing inspirational. The abuse itself is troublingly ambiguous: though it unquestionably did harm to both boys (the film is in no way an apologia for sex with minors), this harm cannot be separated from who they are and what they have become. The coach is not presented as a monster; for all his creepiness, we can see what Neil loved in him. The film as a whole is bathed in something of an erotic glow. Even the older Neil’s harshest tricks are lit up by a kind of suffusing intensity that coexists with their overt emotional coldness. (The way the camera lingers lovingly or fetishistically on Neil, as it did on similar youthful male bodies in Araki’s earlier films, is part of the reason for this). And Brian is empathetic, not because we are made to feel sorry for him, in a condescending way, as a helpless victim, but precisely because of his will to refuse such a role, and his stumbling efforts to do something about it. As I’ve already mentioned, Araki elicits extraordinary performances from his actors, who are (if I can put it this way) expressive without emoting. There’s also a tightness of framing and editing, a kind of formal concision that — precisely because it is so unindulgent — works as a kind of affective intensifier, whether we are looking at a seedy gay bar, a seeming UFO passing over Brian’s house, or the giant empty screen of a closed-down drive-in, in front of which Neil and his best friend Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg of Buffy fame) are standing and brooding. Not to mention the concluding shot of the film, which I will not describe here.
But I don’t feel like anything I’ve written so far — not the plot summary, nor the stabs at formal analysis — gets at what’s really at stake in the film. Mysterious Skin is a hauntological movie, about irreparability and ghostly presences. The trauma around which it turns is something that you can’t ever represent (to yourself, much less to others), can’t understand, whether you idealize and cling to it (as Neil does) or (mis)conceive it as radically alien (as Brian does). But it’s also something you can’t ever get away from, since everything you experience and feel, everything you are, is woven around it and through it, permeated by its residual presence. So it’s never there, but it’s also never absent. It can’t really be recalled, but it can’t be expelled either. If Neil and Brian learn anything in the course of the film, it isn’t some therapeutic lesson about “healing,” but rather how to be sensitive to a fatality that they cannot will (cannot ever have willed), but that they also cannot escape, and must “assume.” And that is what is so desolating about the ending of the film, and which remains so when you think about it afterwards. When I say “desolating,” I don’t mean “hopeless,” exactly — the feeling we are left with is not that change is impossible or futile. Indeed, I think we are left with the sense — the hope — that both boys will be able to change their lives somewhat, and for the better. But this change cannot ever be put under the rubric of “moving on” or “coming to terms” or “forgiving” or any of the other therapeutic, psychobabble phrases we tend to use for situations like this. Even the possibility of change is predicated on the fact that (contra Hegel) the wounds of the spirit never heal, and always leave scars behind. If Neil and Brian (not to mention we the viewers) learn anything in the course of the film, it is that.