Review: Mysterious Skin

Neil in Mysterious Skin
The film was great. It definitely ranks up there with some of the best book-to-film adaptations ever. The acting was superb. The music was haunting. And the message was preserved.

I’ve always thought that The Virgin Suicides was the best book-to-film adaptation ever. The light, ethereal cinematography combined with the amazingly ambient score by the French band Air really enhanced the content of the book, elevating the film version to something greater than just a stand-alone movie. I also thought that Requiem for a Dream surpassed the novel (which was rather difficult to get through due to its lack of punctuation, etc.), not only because it made the material more accessible, but also because the jerky and oftentimes experimental filming style really captured the feelings of the characters and their situations. Most of the time, I’ve noticed, when I enjoy a movie better than a book (or think the movie is as good as the book), it is because the filmmaker did something unique to express an idea in the book that can be done better visually.

Surprisingly, that was not the case with Mysterious Skin. The movie is pretty much a one-to-one adaptation of the book. Some of the major differences/exclusions I noticed:

  • During the Halloween part (when they were eight years old), as Brian is entering the haunted house, him and Neil make eye contact.
  • In the movie, Neil doesn’t discover the Playgirl magazines stashed under his mom’s bed.
  • The movie doesn’t explain that Brian’s dad leaves the family and divorces his mom.
  • The book has a scene before Brian and Mrs. Lackey watch the World of Mystery television show where they go fishing — I thought it was cool to see them bond.
  • The scene where Neil, Neil’s mom, and Eric go to the white trash diner and then the nature reserve (where they eat cheese and drink wine) was removed.
  • Neil gets a got at “Subz” in the film and it is after leaving there that he meets the guy who rapes him. In the book, the guy is waiting outside of the hustler bar (one of the “cheap ones” who doesn’t go in the bar but waits for the hustlers who can’t get business that night).
  • In the book, Neil sort of makes a friend at the hustler bar.
  • In the book, after being raped, Neil makes a comment about never wanting to touch his ass again — I thought this was really significant, but I can see how it would be tough to translate into film.

Despite that (somewhat?) long list, the movie really was extremely faithful to the book. In a Q&A after the film, Gregg Araki explained that ever since reading the novel, he has always wanted to basically translate it to the screen. I think his careful adaptation preserves the importance and delicate subject matter of the book without adding the director’s own flashy trademarks. As someone who just finished reading the book a few days ago, I was very pleased.

As for the acting, of course, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Neil (the gay one who is a hustler) was great — and he had the perfect body for the part (dark hair, dark eyes, waif-thin, etc.). What blew me away most was the acting of Chase Ellison who played Neil at age eight. The kid totally had me convinced that he was a horny and somewhat manipulative (not to mention confused and rather messed-up/abused).

One of the things Araki discussed at the Q&A was the fact that it was very important to him and the crew that the young actors were “shielded” from the content of the film. I am guessing that this meant that the young actors basically didn’t know what they were doing — they were just acting however the director told them to act (“look sad”, “look shocked”, “look uncomfortable”, etc.). Araki said that with young actors, you don’t really tell them about their character by giving them back story or explain what is going through that characters head — instead, you just tell the kid actor exactly what to do, and that’s what they do. I thought this, while pretty intuitive, was interesting and seeing how well it worked in Mysterious Skin is really, I think, a testament to how skilled Araki is as a director.

My only qualm about the acting/characters is that we didn’t see much Elisabeth Shue. Granted, her part in the book wasn’t much bigger, but I would’ve loved to see her on-screen more. Oh well.

When it comes to the music, there is where I think my love for Greg Araki really intensifies. As I recently mentioned, I became rather obsessed with the music of Nowhere and The Doom Generation. While the music for Mysterious Skin wasn’t as random/”pop” (as in “pop” as opposed to classical/arranged/score music), it was still just as appropriate and moving.

Robin Guthrie, of the Cocteau Twins (who Araki has used extensively on soundtracks in the past and who are one of the major players in that whole shoegaze music movement), worked with Harold Budd (who worked with Brian Eno back in the day) to create an extremely ambient and moody soundtrack. Araki mentioned during the Q&A that he has the soundtrack album and listens to it constantly. He also noted that shoegaze music was influential on both him and the writer of the novel (Scott Heim).

In addition to the score, I also remembered hearing “Dagger” by Slowdive, a song or two by Cocteau Twins, a song by Medicine, and a song by Sigur Rós. During the Q&A, Araki mentioned that there was a song by Curve, but I don’t think so — though I know he used them in The Doom Generation and Nowhere.

Overall, I, of course, gave this movie 5/5. It was touching and very well-done. And I was also impressed with Araki’s ability to break from his trademark style (“satirical, postmodern, and ironic” — I think is how he described it last night) to something more subtle and serious.

4 thoughts on “Review: Mysterious Skin

  1. No, I didn’t pay attention to the music. Or, I should say, the music wasn’t prominent enought to draw my attention. But I loved the movie for sure!

  2. Mysterious Skin was something else. I am currently on a backpacking trip in south east Asia and thought I would never see it. Then I find an arthouse cinema in Singapore playing it! The film had such an effect on me though and I was still thinking about it more than 24 hours later. I couldn’t find the soundtrack in any of the stores here so I’m getting it from iTunes. Just an amazing film.

  3. The film doesn’t show Neil finding his mom’s Playgirls, but it does make reference to it — at the beginning, IIRC, when he’s watching her fuck her boyfriend against the swing set.

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