Greg Araki’s film Mysterious Skin (2006) is an adaptation Scott Heim's novel about two eight-year-old boys in Kansas who are molested by their baseball coach. The movie avoids the usual clichés of molestation narratives by presenting the two vastly different lives that resulted from the same trauma. Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes a hustler who grows increasingly reckless in his sexual behavior, while Brian (Brady Corbet) is so deep in denial he believes he was abducted by aliens instead of sexually abused. The depiction of the child molester is especially interesting because he is not portrayed as a monster. One of the most curious aspects of the film is the attractive depiction of Coach: because the film is presented through the subjective perspectives of the two boys, Coach is seen as each boy would have seen him. He seduces them, and thus he seems more like a friend, rather than a sexual threat. But this is also the only perspective that the audience is given so there are no cracks in Coach’s appealing façade. This kind of positive exterior is precisely what the molester wants within the diegesis of the film. There are a few ancillary elements in the film that suggest the abuse has damaged the boys—Neil’s attraction to horror films, Neil’s rape near the end of the film, and his denial of the severity of any of the events—but the odd thing, especially for a film by a gay filmmaker, is that the implied repercussions of the child abuse are activities associated with a sexually active gay youth. Because Brian and Neil grow up as sexy young men and do things that any curious young person might do, it is as if the film is making a connection between sexual preference and abuse. The monster at the center of this film is so attractive that he seems blameless, and he turns the boys not into pathological wrecks, but into attractive sexualized portraits of young men.
The opening 30 minutes of the film show us Neil and Brian as nine-year-olds being molested by Coach, done through flashbacks with voiceover that is often just text lifted by screenwriter Scott Heim straight from his own book. This kind of voiceover distances the viewer from the action, because the voiceover acts as a buffer, it is describing and interpreting what the images are showing. The character’s voice mediates the information rather than allowing the audience to engage directly with the disturbing images, and so the voiceover becomes the primary contact with the audience. In the opening half hour of Mysterious Skin, though, the whole point is to highlight the characters’ psychological shell as they grasp at the formative events of their childhoods, trying to undertand. Both characters remember what happened in such a different ways that the events are either glossed over to the extreme of making abuse seem like ecstatic pleasure, as in Neil’s case, or else it is completely suppressed, as in Brian’s.
Brian spends the whole movie actively trying to find out what happened to him, and the voiceover at the beginning of the film connects the audience to the experience of his character. He is certain of some events from his childhood, but is completely at a loss when it comes to the traumatic abuse and the voiceover’s searching narration becomes the central thrust of the whole movie. The first line of the film is Brian declaring, “The summer I was eight years old, five hours disappeared from my life,” and the rest of the film, at least for Brian, involves the uncovering of that mystery. Alien abduction becomes the prism through which he begins to approach the mystery, which concludes when Neil finally takes him to the site of the trauma, Coach’s house, and tells him what happened. This scene's revelations seem to be an attempt by the director to finally expose Coach for the monster he was. Coach’s crimes against the boys involve blowjobs and fisting, which conceptually might be extreme, especially when stated so explicitly. But even in this scene Coach’s friendly image remains in tact. His crimes are recounted audibly but the only incriminating visual we get of Coach is a shot of him on all fours, sweaty, looking over his shoulder back at the camera. He is caught in flagrante, but it is only suggested, neither the penetration nor the boys are shown in the shot. Penetration would take the movie in a more extreme direction, but without it Coach retains his deceptive mask. In a different context, the setup of this scene could easily make it one of extreme attractiveness.
Neil’s perspective of Coach and his situation in the film are even more problematic than Brian’s. At age eight Neil’s first reaction to Coach is related as such, “I wasn’t sure what to do with my emotion. It was like a gift I had to open in front of a crowd.” Before Coach even begins to seduce him, Neil is already deeply attracted. In the book the desire is more extreme, “Desire sledge-hammered my body, a sensation I still wasn’t sure I had a name for. If I saw Coach now, say across a crowded bar, that feeling would translate to something like ‘I want to fuck him.’” Neil has a crush on Coach and thus Coach is seen only through the lense of Neil’s adoring gaze. Coach is s a fantasy come true for Neil, and there is no filter because Neil has had no one teach him about sexual boundaries. His mother cares for him, but she is too preoccupied with her own love life to provide an example for him or even judge Neil’s extended stays at Coach’s house to be inappropriate. Thus the only critical perspective of the situation comes from outside the diegetic world, in the form of the movie itself. The fact that a movie about child abuse has been made drects the focus on the issue. Regardless of how it is treated within the film itself, because of its subject, the film raises awareness of issues for the purpose of critique.
But within the film Neil’s perspective only allows few and problematic entry points for an alternative readingsof Coach. The fact that Neil at age fifteen becomes a male prostitute who scores middle-aged johns at a playground pick-up spot is ostensibly a critique of his earlier experiences with Coach. But like Coach’s molestation, Neil’s prostitution is portrayed in such a way that it becomes alluring. His less experienced friend, Eric (Jeff Licon) calls Neil “a god” just as Neil struts off across the playground in slow motion to meet another john. In addition, the johns may be old men who are balding and fat and unattractive, but the sex scenes with them are sensuous and warm. There is nothing in the scenes that suggest Neil is uncomfortable or engaging in something that he wouldn’t do if the money weren’t involved. In fact, money is hardly the issue for Neil, it is all about the sex for him. He even talks about wanting to conquer a man in a white Camero because he has had every other john that comes to the park. Neil is in full control of his situation. Granted, it is suggested that he is possibly attracted to these older men because the approval and adoration they give him parallel the attention that Coach gave him when he was eight. This would mean he has failed to grow past the trauma of his childhood. But the movie has a hard time conveying what Neil is doing is “bad,” just as it has a hard time depicting the monster as a monster. Not that prostitution is bad; in this film it comes off as empowering to a certain extent. The problem is that there are conflicting messages: the film wants to suggest that trauma led Neil into a debased and dangerous lifestyle, but then it depicts the lifestyle very seductively.
Two-thirds of the way through the film Neil moves to New York and his experiences with men change. Neil continues his prostitution in the big city and we see three of his encounters. The first encounter is with a man who is all business; he pushes Neil around and rushes him into the act. It is a new experience for Neil, who is used to being adored and fawned over. The second encounter is with a man who has AIDS and is covered in Kaposi's sarcoma sores. This man initially presents himself as a threat to Neil, he has a reptilian face and speaks in a whisper and smokes narcotics before sex, but he turns out to be harmless. The final New York john beats and rapes Neil violently in a bathtub. This rape comes right before Neil’s return home when he recounts Coach’s activities to Brian and thus, through proximity, the rape could be interpreted as an expression of the emotional violence of Coach’s abuse of the boys. Because the first part of Neil’s career in prostitution was portrayed with so sensationally, the rape at the end might be the culmination of Neil’s dangerous sexual activity. If the prostitution was instigated by Coach’s abuse so many years before then in order to condemn both the molestation and prostitution Neil is violently punished at the end. But this all adds up in a strange way: Neil’s sexual activity with the johns doesn’t seem dangerous in Kansas, but pleasant, while his encounters in New York are not at all pleasant, which comes off as a negative depiction of sex in the big city rather than consequences of Coach’s abuse. If anything the depictions of the johns in New York come off as indictments of anonymous gay sex. Narratively the rape might serve as an emotional punctuation of the trauma caused by Coach, but it paints gay life negatively. Neil didn’t do anything but go home with a stranger, and someone hardly needs to have been molested as a child to want to experience anonymous sex.
What emerges from all these mixed valences is a sense that Neil wasn’t traumatized by the molestation itself so much as he feels abandoned by Coach. Despite Neil’s age, the formation of his relationship with Coach is presented as a mutual convergence. There are some instances where Coach is obviously more experienced with the situation and is leading Neil into areas that he doesn’t know about, but Neil is always a willing participant. Coach offers him candy, food, and soda; he plays video games with Neil and takes pictures of him. Of course, these are diversions for Coach’s greater goals, but Neil hardly needs the bait. Like most young boys Neil enjoys junk food and video games, but unlike many boys at that age he is completely open, comfortable and confident about his gay sexuality. He wants to act on it. So the pleasantries that Coach provides for him might be pleasing in themselves but they are unnecessary for Coach to attract Neil. Neil was already hooked from the first meeting. Araki could never depict this relationship as completely mutual, nor healthy without facing grave criticism, but he makes it attractive through the absence of the horrific. The monster is never seen as a monster, all the audience can do is assume that he is a monster because of predetermined beliefs about the criminality of child molesters. The one seductive thing that Coach does that really hooks Neil is to make him think he is his favorite boy. It is implied that Neil helps Coach seduce other boys, which Neil is fine with as long as he knows that Coach prefers him. This is where Neil gets his sense of worth. So when Coach disappears because he is transferred to a different district, Neil must be devastated. When he prostitutes himself at age fifteen he is empowered. He has turned the situation so that he is now in control of the fawning adults. The older johns want him more than he wants them. Neil is already sexually aware at a young age, so Coach’s introduction to sex seems to have less power than it might on someone else. But the abandonment is what carries greater weight. Neil is thrusting himself into a position where he controls the sexual interactions and who comes and goes. He is the one that always leaves rather than have be left like he was in the past.
Even at the end of the film Neil and Brian hardly seem like destroyed characters. They dredge up the events of the past but hardly put them in a new light. Brian cries when he realizes the full extent of what happened, but is a healing moment more than anything. And it is not as if his life has been really derailed in any large way because of the molestation of his childhood. He’ll have to give up his avid interest in aliens as a possible source of his loss of memory, but it doesn’t seem like his life would have been much different had the molestation not happened. Neil, whose life is much more clearly affected by Coach hardly, seems changed at the end. Even after his rape he is still the arrogant and reckless character that he was at the beginning. Coach, the monster at the heart of the film, is never presented as a monster. A monstrous situation is addressed, but it is presented as any healthy and condoned relationship might be. He is in fact presented as the perfect lover and is only condemned in super diegetic discourse that presupposes any child molester’s guilt. Within the film he is hardly criticized for what he did.
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