Of all the representations of pedophilia in movies recently, from "Mystic River" to Kevin Bacon's powerful performance as a recovering abuser in "The Woodsman" to Todd Solondz's treatment of the subject in the unsettling, if condescending, "Palindromes," "Mysterious Skin" might be the most unflinching depiction of how sexual predation reverberates over time, like toxic ripples through a pond.
In this sad, often unnervingly graphic adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Scott Heim, former child TV star Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("3rd Rock From the Sun") delivers a haunting, uncompromising performance as a young man who at 8 years of age was seduced by his Little League coach. Now a gay hustler cruising for tricks in the park of his tiny home town in Kansas, Neil McCormick (Gordon-Levitt) has the half-lidded, sneering gaze of a teenager who has embraced nihilism, not as a fashion statement but as a survival mechanism. He's shut off and shut down, careering down a frightening path of unsafe sex and increasingly violent encounters that seem to be leading inexorably to his self-destruction.
Meanwhile Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet) is heading down his own path, one involving a search for answers to the pivotal episode in his young life, when he witnessed a UFO landing and was abducted by aliens. Narrated by both characters as young men, "Mysterious Skin" traces how their lives intersected as kids, and what led to the mysteries they're living with as adults.
The director, Gregg Araki, until now best known for such transgressive gay-themed underground films as "The Doom Generation" and "Nowhere," has made the most mature movie of his career, one that deftly cuts not only between the stories of these wildly different young men, but also between past and present within those stories.
Capturing 1980s suburban ennui just as vividly as early-'90s New York, Araki suffuses both worlds with a dreamlike quality, one that at times threatens to make "Mysterious Skin" more like a parable than realistic drama. Similarly, its characters often speak in improbably well-turned phrases that seem more literary than lived. (For some reason, the plummiest lines are given to the film's two female leads -- Elisabeth Shue, who plays Neil's blowzily unaware mother, and Michelle Trachtenberg as his bad-girl best friend.)
Still, for its occasional ponderousness, there is a terrible, terrifying honesty at the core of "Mysterious Skin" that will make it chillingly recognizable to some viewers and important to recognize for others. Araki spares no detail in showing how Neil's baseball coach (Bill Sage) culls and cultivates his young victim, taking him home to a wholesome-looking ranch house full of video games, toys and variety packs of sugary cereals. The scenes between the coach and Neil (played as a boy by Chase Ellison) are sickening, as are the ways Neil later copes with his experience, becoming a kind of predator in his own right.
If "Mysterious Skin" becomes a bit schematic in keeping Neil and Brian apart and then bringing them together as adults (wouldn't they have known each other all along in such a small town?), and if it seems too deeply steeped in its literary provenance, it is still a startling portrayal of how the cycle of abuse plays itself out in the lives of its victims, who are in danger of either sliding into nothingness or becoming perpetrators themselves. "Mysterious Skin" would be tragic if it weren't for the glint of redemptive hope Araki offers at the end, but its pervading mood of sadness nonetheless suggests that some wounds can never heal.
Mysterious Skin (99 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is not rated. It contains graphic scenes of sexuality, sexual violence, profanity and drug use.