"MYSTERIOUS SKIN" is a helter-skelter ride of the soul, an unblinking, white-knuckle crash landing into the mushy mysteries of the subconscious. Gregg Araki's movie, which makes an ingenious, dark metaphor out of extraterrestrial visitation, is not for the fainthearted, the squeamish or the inflexibly decent. It plunges headlong and unequivocally into themes of pedophilia, prostitution, rape and I haven't even mentioned alien probing.
While watching this movie, I scribbled the word "whoa" five times into my notebook.
Two young men, in voice-over, recount their traumatic stories, side by side, as it were. One is 18-year-old Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet), who has no conscious explanation for two blackout experiences in his childhood, one of which has caused him to have spontaneous nosebleeds when he's under stress. He has also suffered nightmares and wet beds. In his teen years, he sees a television show about alien abductions and comes to believe he may have been the victim of an encounter himself. He contacts one of the women interviewed on the show and discovers she shares many of his experiences.
The other storyteller is Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a gay hustler in his late teens, whose formative sexual experiences consisted of pleasuring himself at the age of 8, while watching his promiscuous mother (Elisabeth Shue) in an intimate encounter. At the same tender age, he also had consensual (according to him) sex with his male baseball coach Heider (Bill Sage). Sick of the two-bit transactions he's having in his Kansas home town, he moves to New York City. But his risky behavior there sets him up for almost certain disaster.
"Where people have a heart," observes Neil's best friend, Wendy (Michelle Trachtenberg), "Neil McCormick has a bottomless black hole."
Why these two men's histories are in the same drama becomes apparent later. But until that time, we watch -- fascinated, appalled and powerfully moved -- as they recount whole lives spent in a downward spiral. Brian is so traumatized he has been unable to enjoy any kind of intimacy, but Neil, who believes he feels a liberated awakening about his sexuality, walks without hesitation toward sexual self-obliteration. Each story oddly complements and fortifies the other, in terms of gearing up the dread, the desperation and the suspense. And when they converge, the boys' fusion of anger, bitterness, regret and revelation is mesmeric.
If you have thrived from your experiences with any combination of filmmakers David Lynch, Todd Solondz, David Cronenberg and Larry Clark, you might be prime audience material for this film. And yet, Araki, who made such thematically intense and sexually graphic films as "The Living End," "Totally F***ed Up" and "The Doom Generation," ratchets things even more acutely than those directors. (See Film Notes on Page 41.) But he does it with silky, inspired skill. Despite the hard-edged, controversial subject matter, he makes you view the taboo from another perspective. In those moments, you at least temporarily reconsider your paradigm for morality. When Coach Heider seduces the boy, yes, it is pedophilia and a deeply immoral offense. But in the context of Araki's film, something else is happening. The 8-year-old Neil, who has a big crush on his coach, has partly engineered this seduction, and he's perhaps even more lost in the passionate moment than Heider. But whether Neil really had the halcyon experience he thought he did becomes a later matter.
Corbet is note perfect as the crushed, anguished Brian, who's determined to understand what has happened to him, and Gordon-Levitt's harrowing turn as Neil surely marks him for even greater roles ahead. There's something extraordinarily tender about him as he takes you through his personal nightmare. (He has come a long way since playing Tommy Solomon in TV's "3rd Rock From the Sun.") Their performances are so vital for the dangerous brinkmanship of this movie. And behind the camera, Araki is the steadying force, hands firmly on the wheel of this bucking, swerving vehicle. His unblinking conviction makes this movie, at least by its own standards, a disturbing triumph.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN (Unrated, 99 minutes) -- Contains intense thematic material, pedophilia, violence, rape, obscenity and sexual scenes. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street Cinema.