Mysterious Skin dir. by Gregg Araki
Set in Hutchinson, Kansas, Mysterious Skin (2004) problematizes conventional depictions of the Midwest as a site of idealized nuclear family structures and perceived immunity from sexual violence. In the film, director Gregg Araki chronicles the lives of two young men, Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) and Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as they come to terms with the trauma of being molested by their Little League baseball coach (Bill Sage). As young adults, Brian and Neil internalize the event in [End Page 133] disparate ways. Brian withdraws, avoiding close interpersonal relationships and psychologically masking the abuse as an alien abduction fantasy. By contrast, Neil exhibits an appetite for rebellion and engages in hustling, both in his small Kansas town and during his later move to New York City. After suffering a brutal rape in the city, Neil returns to Hutchinson and reunites with Brian, who seeks to uncover the meaning of his abduction. Together the two characters return to the house where they were abused by their coach and retrace the event from Neil’s memory, which Araki depicts through a series of flashbacks. Mysterious Skin’s emotional ending offers little in the way of justice for the two young men, as Neil’s narration of their assault crushes Brian’s constructed reality. Neil concludes, “I wanted to tell Brian it was over now and everything would be okay. But that was a lie.” With this ambivalent conclusion, the film suggests that Brian’s belief in his alien abduction served as a more comforting “truth” than the heart-wrenching revelation of sexual violation.
Reimagining the idyllic midwestern town as a site for sinister manipulation and bodily violation, Mysterious Skin challenges the dichotomous portrayal of regional identity between the East and the Midwest: the former as an embodiment of hard living and the latter signified by the utopian virtues of small town life. Following a night of hustling in New York City, Neil’s childhood friend and roommate Wendy warns Neil of the dangers of hustling in the urban jungle, alluding to the potentiality of violence in these interactions. Yet, the danger of urban life remains complicated in the film, equally presenting opportunities for violence, criminality, and empathy. After meeting a middle-aged man with hiv/aids, Neil offers a moment of sympathy from his otherwise callous nature, spending the time tenderly massaging the man’s lesion-covered skin as opposed to engaging in sex. In Hutchinson, though, the Little League coach’s ability to pass himself off as a valued member of the community presents a socially legitimated mask. This mask makes his heinous acts invisible to trusting adults as he preys upon socioeconomically vulnerable boys on the team. Hence, the film presents midwestern life as a mask for wickedness and strips the region of its mythologized innocence and wholesomeness.
Whether physical or sexual, the potentiality of violence functions as a major theme in the film, particularly in one scene where Neil and a friend, Eric (Jeffrey Licon), face gunpoint after simulating sex at a stoplight in Hutchinson. Afterwards, Wendy warns Eric of his hostile new environment, “You’d better be careful. … You’re not in Modesto [California] [End Page 134] anymore.” While sexually active, Neil’s characterization belies stereotypical depictions of homosexuality, as he maintains a degree of athleticism, drinks beer, and exhibits masculinized, carefree rebellion. Brian remains characterized as bookish, quiet, and quirky with his sexuality ambiguous, especially after an unnerving sexual encounter with Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a young woman he befriends. While Mysterious Skin intersects with scholarly debates on masculinity and queer theory, the film’s discussion of homosexuality confines the narrative of queer identity to white men, moving the debate away from multiracial and women’s experiences.
In opposition to the popular idealization of midwestern suburban bliss, Mysterious Skin offers an opportunity for audiences to reimagine the region beyond a heteronormative lens. At a local park, Neil meets potential clients revealed as predominantly white, middle class family men from out of town or on business. The covert nature of the meetings coupled with the mixed socioeconomic status of Neil’s clients serve to complicate the existing narrative of midwestern suburban life, challenging prevailing cultural attitudes about homosexuality and masculinity within the region.
While Mysterious Skin presents a well-crafted narrative of adolescent rebellion and personal tragedy, the film relies heavily on the broken family trope to explain the two characters’ shared childhood experience. Throughout the film, paternal figures remain largely invisible. Brian’s father particularly is portrayed as emotionally distant, and he ignores Brian’s bloodied nose and disorientation the night of the rape. Instead, Brian’s father focuses on his son’s lacking athleticism. In a confrontation between Brian and his father, Brian shouts, “I was bleeding. I kept passing out. I wet my bed, and you never asked why!” Neil’s father is nonexistent, while his mother (Elisabeth Shue) is portrayed as hypersexualized and indifferent to her son’s daily life. Despite illustrating the two families’ vulnerability to the Little League coach’s predatory behavior, the broken family trope leaves the audience with the reactionary conclusion that single parent environments remain equally as responsible for a child’s molestation as the perpetrator. Mysterious Skin’s challenge to traditional family structures simultaneously defies ideas about gender expectations and family life in the Midwest, as well as reaffirms preconceptions of inevitable childhood trauma resulting from single, working parent households.
Mysterious Skin presents an occasion to evaluate childhood sexual violence across gender, class, and racial lines by countering the regionalist, romanticized narrative of the Midwest as perfectly communal and free [End Page 135] from danger. Instead, the film indicates, sexual violence knows no regional borders, as trauma may manifest in myriad ways and places.