Monster-in-Law, Kings and Queen, and Mysterious Skin.

Monster-in-Law, Kings and Queen, and Mysterious Skin.

Monster-in-Law, Kings and Queen, and Mysterious Skin.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
May 13 2005 8:19 AM

Doggy Style

Jet Li is a sweetie monster in Unleashed, and we're still fonda Fonda in Monster-in-Law.

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Don't worry—this isn't a NAMBLA (North American Man Boy Love Association) * manifesto. But Araki—working from a novel by Scott Heim—begins with a vision of bliss, of Froot Loops cereal flying through the air in lyrical slow motion. Later, we learn the source of that image. A baseball coach (Bill Sage) ushers prepubescent Neil (Chase Ellison) into a subterranean den filled with video games and junk food—a juvenile paradise, far from the unstable world of his single mother (Elisabeth Shue) and her various boyfriends.

The coach isn't your typical movie pervert. Sandy-haired and laid-back, he's a cross between Robert Redford and Owen Wilson. He's attentive—boy, is he attentive. When Neil opens a mini box of cereal too enthusiastically and its contents fly across the table, the coach opens another and dumps it over his own head; and then the two, madly giggling, rip open box after box. It's this ecstatic romp that the fatherless boy keeps returning to. Years later, he says he has never felt so loved. (Mysterious Skin makes you wonder if—as an ongoing trial suggests—sexual predators can be the neatest playmates.)


Araki's treatment of the sex that follows is careful—for legal reasons, obviously, but also because it makes artistic and moral sense to isolate Neil in the frame. The camera fastens on a hand, a chest, some fingers in a mouth—images that will anchor themselves in the boy's brain. We are not seeing a communion of souls, but a violation that will leave Neil locked inside himself for the rest of his life. Gordon-Levitt is a slender and beautiful young man—in the Keanu Reeves mode, but flesh-and-blood instead of wood. The smugness with which he regards the (many) middle-aged johns who solicit his favors can't conceal his addiction to them. Neil boasts of being the one in control, but when the johns are on top of him, he goes for an instant to another, more exposed, place. His cool looks increasingly like desperation.

The concurrent trajectory of Brian—blond, frail, bookish—is more fractured, and full of bizarre zigzags. When the UFO obsession takes hold, he's suddenly trekking out to the farm of Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), a disabled woman profiled on a "reality" show called World of Mystery. She's sure that as a girl she was taken and probed and mutilated by aliens—although the way her old dad gazes suspiciously on her visitors makes you wonder if the alien didn't arrive on a tractor. For Brian, the alien thing won't take. The face that he remembers is human and belongs to a boy—a boy who must have gone to his school.

The work of Araki and his colleagues (cinematographer Steve Gainer, designer Devorah Herbert, composers Harold Budd and Robin Guthrie) is entrancing, but Mysterious Skin is sometimes a mite... unmysterious. The young Brian's first, post-traumatic fainting spell is followed by a slow-motion shot of his glass of milk sailing through the air and shattering: Goodbye to childhood and all that. An uncannily touching scene with Billy Drago (a wonderful heavy in B and C pictures) as a lesion-riddled john moaning with joy as Neil caresses his back is nearly undone by Araki's final, plaintive close-up of a Vermeer reproduction hanging on the man's wall.

But the actors spell nothing out. Beyond Gordon-Levitt's revelatory work, Mysterious Skin features intense but gorgeously restrained performances by Corbet, Shue, Jeffrey Licon as Neil's effeminate pal, Ellison and George Webster as the young boys, and Michelle Trachtenberg—whose lips seem finally under control here. Another surprise is Rajskub, the nerdy-cutie of The Larry Sanders Show and 24, who goes deeper into her dysfunctional persona than ever before. What a twisted, inward character. Along with Brian, Avalyn makes you understand the religion of UFOs—as both a metaphor of violation and a means of leaving this wicked world behind... 3:17 P.T.

Correction, May 13, 2005:The original version of this review incorrectly identified NAMBLA as an acronym for the "National Association of Man Boy Love" as opposed to the correct title, "The North American Man Boy Love Association." This was not intended as a slight to Canada or Mexico. Anything but. I ought to have Googled it, but the fear of S.W.A.T. teams promptly crashing through my office window forced me to take a stab. My thanks to a reader—not a NAMBLA member—for supplying me with the correct name. And my apologies to... On second thought, never mind. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.

David Edelstein is the chief film critic for New York magazine and a film critic for NPR’s Fresh Air.