Mysterious Skin

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Mysterious Skin
Mysterious skin.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gregg Araki
Produced by Gregg Araki
Screenplay by Gregg Araki
Based on Mysterious Skin
by Scott Heim
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Brady Corbet
Michelle Trachtenberg
Mary Lynn Rajskub
Elisabeth Shue
Music by Harold Budd
Robin Guthrie
Cinematography Steve Gainer
Edited by Gregg Araki
Distributed by Tartan Films
Release date
  • September 3, 2004 (2004-09-03) (Venice)
Running time
105 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Box office $2.1 million[2]

Mysterious Skin is a 2004 Dutch-American drama film directed by American filmmaker Gregg Araki, who also wrote the screenplay based on Scott Heim's 1995 novel of the same name. The film is Araki's eighth, premiering at the 61st Venice International Film Festival in 2004, although it was not more widely distributed until 2005.

Mysterious Skin tells the story of two pre-adolescent boys who are sexually abused by their baseball coach, and how it affects their lives in different ways into their young adulthood. One boy becomes a reckless, sexually adventurous male prostitute, while the other retreats into a reclusive fantasy of alien abduction.


During the summer of 1981 in Hutchinson, Kansas, eight-year-olds Neil McCormick and Brian Lackey, teammates in Little League, both experience life-altering events. Neil, the son of an irresponsible single mother and already discovering his homosexuality, is sexually abused by his Little League coach, who leaves town after that summer. Brian, with a neglectful father and a mother who's often working, remembers it starting to rain during a game. The next thing he remembers is being in a crawl space in his house with a bloody nose, having no memory of the intervening five hours.

Neil views the coach's abuse as love and becomes mainly attracted to "bearish" middle-aged men. He begins prostituting himself at the age of 15. Three years later, he moves to New York City, where his best friend Wendy Peterson now lives, and continues prostituting there. Neil has an emotional encounter with a "customer" dying from AIDS. Though Neil suspects the man wants sex, he actually wants nothing more than to feel another person's touch. The encounter leads Neil to start to withdraw from prostitution and take a job as a cashier.

For years after coming to in the crawl space, Brian suffers from chronic nosebleeds, blackouts and bedwetting. He has unsettling recurring dreams about being touched by a strange, bluish hand. These odd dreams lead Brian to suspect that he may have been abducted by aliens. Eventually, another boy wearing the same Little League uniform begins to appear with him in these dreams. When he's 18, Brian meets a woman named Avalyn Friesen who also believes she was abducted by aliens. They begin to form a friendship, but when she comes on to him, he panics and refuses to speak to her again.

While trying to untangle his confused memories, Brian sees a photo of his Little League team, recognizing a young Neil as the boy from his dreams. Taking the initiative to meet his former teammate, Brian instead meets Neil's mother and his friend Eric Pressly, and through him, he learns more about Neil. After being beaten and raped by a trick, Neil returns to Hutchinson to spend Christmas with his mother. Then, Neil and Brian meet for the first time in over a decade. After breaking into the house that was previously rented by the baseball coach, Neil tells Brian what happened that night: after the baseball game was rained out and Brian didn't have a ride home, the coach offered to drive Brian home with Neil. Instead, they all went to the coach's house, where the coach performed sex acts on the boys and made them perform sex acts on each other. A porch light caused the atmosphere to have an eerie blue color. After the coach and Neil put Brian's clothes back on, Brian collapsed face-first onto the floor, causing the bloody nose. Learning the truth at last, Brian breaks down crying and is comforted by Neil as Christmas carolers sing "Silent Night".



Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Trachtenberg, by the time the film went into production, were looking for independent films where making money was not the main goal.[3] Trachtenberg was filming EuroTrip (2004) in Prague when she first received the script, and quickly decided to join production.[3] Gordon-Levitt was especially praiseful of Araki for allowing him to join production, and commented in a 2005 interview: "It is a really different role for me, and I'll always be really grateful to Gregg for believing that I could do a role like this. I've played the nice kid, and the smart one or funny one and even the angry one, but Gregg was the first one to call me sexy, and I'll always be really grateful for that."[3] Araki approached Gordon-Levitt, who was by then struggling to find work for over a year, after seeing him in Manic (2001).[4] Made on a low budget, filming commenced in August 2003 and lasted only three weeks, which gave the cast and crew no possibility of doing retakes.[3]

A number of measures were taken to avoid exposing the child actors to the sexual and abusive aspects of the story. Although their parents were given the entire shooting script to review, the boys were given separate scripts which included only the activities they would be performing, and their roles and the characters' relationships were explained to them in innocent terms. All of the sexual abuse involving children is implied rather than being directly depicted, and the scenes in which this seduction and abuse takes place were filmed with each actor performing alone and addressing the camera rather than the other actor, then edited together, so the children did not see or hear the performance by the adult actor playing the abuser. (This subjective approach to filming was consequently used in various places throughout the film.)[5][6]


Mysterious Skin received very positive reviews. The film received an 85% "Certified Fresh" rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on 104 reviews with an average rating of 7.4 out of 10. The sites consensus states: "Bold performances and sensitive, spot-on direction make watching this difficult tale of trauma and abuse a thought-provoking, resonant experience."[7] On Metacritic, which uses a "metascore", the film holds 73 out of 100 based on 32 reviews.[8]

Lou Lumenick from the New York Post commented, "Not for the squeamish, but it is a beautifully crafted and thoughtful film that genuinely provokes."[9] Ella Taylor from LA Weekly wrote “A warped, but beautiful and strangely hopeful, coming-of-age tale.”[9] Roger Ebert[10] gave Mysterious Skin 3.5 out of a possible 4 stars, describing it as "at once the most harrowing and, strangely, the most touching film I have seen about child abuse". Steven Rhea of The Philadelphia Inquirer awarded the film 3 out of 4 stars, stating that "Mysterious Skin" ultimately "manages to deal with its raw, awful subject matter in ways that are both challenging and illuminating".[11] Gordon-Levitt was praised by critics for his performance, and the actor has stated that people on the streets had come up to him to applaud his performance in the film.[3] His portrayal of a teenage hustler inspired director Scott Frank to cast him in The Lookout (2007).[4]

According to psychologist Richard Gartner,[12] the novel Mysterious Skin is an uncommonly accurate portrayal of the long-term effect of child sexual abuse on boys.

Rating issues[edit]

The US MPAA rated the film NC-17, which the studio appealed unsuccessfully. The film was released theatrically in the US without a rating.[13]

The film was the subject of some controversy in Australia, where the Australian Family Association requested a review of its classification, seeking to have the film outlawed due to its depiction of pedophilia. They suggested that the film could be used by pedophiles for sexual gratification or to help them groom children for sexual abuse.[14] The six-member Classification Review Board voted four-to-two in favour of maintaining an R18+ rating. The controversy is referenced in a review excerpt from The Sydney Morning Herald on the Region 4 DVD that reads: "How anyone could have wanted it banned is beyond me";[15] film critic Margaret Pomeranz expressed that the film does more for the case against pedophilia, stating: "People who do indulge in crimes like that, if they saw this film they would understand the damage that they do."[16]


The film score was composed by Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie.

Other songs include:

  1. "Golden Hair" – Slowdive (written by Syd Barrett)
  2. "Galaxy" – Curve
  3. "Game Show" – Dag Gabrielsen, Bill Campbell, Nelson Foltz, Robert Roe
  4. "Catch the Breeze" – Slowdive
  5. "Crushed" – Cocteau Twins
  6. "Dagger" – Slowdive
  7. "I Guess I Fell in Love Last Night" – Dag Gabrielsen, Alex Lacamoire
  8. "I Could Do Without Her" – Dag Gabrielsen, Alex Lacamoire
  9. "Drive Blind" – Ride
  10. "O Come All Ye Faithful" – Tom Meredith, Cydney Neal, Arlo Levin, Isaiah Teofilo
  11. "Away in a Manger" – Tom Meredith, Cydney Neal, Arlo Levin, Isaiah Teofilo
  12. "Silent Night" – Tom Meredith, Cydney Neal, Arlo Levin, Isaiah Teofilo, Evan Rachel Wood, John Mason
  13. "Samskeyti" – Sigur Rós
  14. "Blue Skied an' Clear" – Slowdive



  1. ^ "MYSTERIOUS SKIN (18)". British Board of Film Classification. 2005-03-09. Retrieved 2013-05-12. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e Otto, Jeff (2005-06-03). "Interview: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet and Michelle Trachtenberg". Retrieved 2013-01-29. 
  4. ^ a b Feinberg, Scott (2010-07-25). "INTERVIEW: JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT ON WHY HE QUIT ACTING, CAME BACK". Scott Retrieved 2013-01-29. 
  5. ^ 'Interview: Under the "Mysterious Skin"' Archived December 4, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ Director and actors' commentary track on DVD release
  7. ^ Mysterious Skin at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ Mysterious Skin at Metacritic
  9. ^ a b Alexander Ryll (2014). "Essential Gay Themed Films To Watch, Mysterious Skin". Gay Essential. Retrieved 22 December 2014. 
  10. ^ "Mysterious Skin". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  11. ^ 'Mysterious Skin' Reviews Rotten Tomatoes
  12. ^ Gartner, Richard. "Cinematic Depictions of Boyhood Sexual Victimization (part 5 of 5)". Originally published in Gender and Psychoanalysis (1999) Volume 4:253-289.
  13. ^ "Reasons for Movie Ratings – Mysterious Skin". MPAA. 
  14. ^ Moses, Alexa (2005-07-19). "Pedophilia theme sparks film ban call". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2009-09-04. Being able to get hold legally of a DVD where they can play the scene over and over again... could prove very helpful to some pedophiles. 
  15. ^ Byrnes, Paul (2005-08-18). "Mysterious Skin". Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2009-09-04. Mysterious Skin is a profoundly moving film, disturbing and beautiful and painful. How anyone could have wanted it banned is beyond me - but of course, the people who wanted it banned hadn't seen it. 
  16. ^ "At the Movies: Mysterious Skin". Australian Broadcasting Company. Retrieved July 11, 2012. 
  17. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 5, 2008. Retrieved December 5, 2007. 
  18. ^[permanent dead link]

External links[edit]