About halfway through Mysterious Skin, the nervy, tender Brian Lackey (who believes himself the victim of alien abduction as a child) meets fellow abductee Avalyn. Avalyn tells Brian that for abductees like them, everything they do and think and feel is informed by that experience. It all comes down to that one moment of victimization. She means it as reassurance, a comforting thought in a confusing world. The idea that all your pain and anguish can be explained so simply is a tempting one. Brian isn’t assuaged, but he is encouraged to continue digging into his memories to uncover the truth of what happened to him.
This is the core idea of Mysterious Skin. This is the root of the film’s understanding of trauma. There is no getting past it, there is no living with it. It is you. It controls everything about you. You are who you are because of it. How many stories have we seen where a victim’s past can be “overcome” in touching victory? How many times have we seen people win a battle against their memory? There is no triumph in Mysterious Skin. There is only the catharsis of knowing, once and for all, your truth. There’s no solace in that act. The only solace is in the arms of someone who went through the same thing — the cold comfort that, despite everything, you’re both still here.
I think this is what truly disturbs so many about Mysterious Skin, beyond its unblinking depiction of child sexual abuse. This isn’t a film about a fight. There’s no struggle to be had against trauma here, and not even the finality of a battle lost. The film’s final shot — of two victims cradling each other as they are engulfed by the black void of the film’s end — suggests a lack of closure that persists past the conclusion of the narrative. We aren’t shown what happens to these kids next. As far as the movie is concerned, they stay on that couch in their rapist’s old house forever. They aren’t given the satisfaction of leaving the way they came in.
What pops out at me most about Mysterious Skin is how Gregg Araki depicts memory, or more specifically the act of remembering. No other director not named Nobuhiko Obayashi does it in such a compelling way. An evolution of sorts of his film Nowhere, where every single second of the film has a song playing, Araki associates certain remembered thoughts and images with music. He then abruptly cuts the sound as the rememberer snaps back to the present. It’s as though memory is another world unto itself, a metaphysical place to which you can be transported.
Brian’s memory is altered as a defense mechanism. Over the course of the film the images in his mind gain more concrete detail, and shed their fantastical elements. Neil’s memory, on the other hand, is crystal clear from the beginning. He remembers the smallest gestures and features with exacting detail. This is how he reckons with what happened to him, by taking ownership of every facet of his memory. Brian tries in vain to bury the reality of it under an incomprehensible fiction, because of course the abuse itself was so incomprehensible to him. Neil’s memory is all extreme close-ups; Brian’s feels more at a remove. It’s a subtle but effective distinction.
Mysterious Skin is as hard a film to write about as it is to watch. It takes a lot out of you to probe a work so upsetting. I trembled with rage and fear for these boys, and when the credits rolled a part of me wished I could leave it at that. This isn’t a film I see myself revisiting. But it’s one I’m glad to have seen, from a filmmaker I’m excited to discover more from.