WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
As a young child, Bryon Widner was saved from a life of poverty and hopelessness by the parental figures of a violent and cult-like White Supremacist group and, in the years since, he lived as one of them, hating all the usual suspects – blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Muslims – with an almost singular passion. When he meets and falls in love with Julie Price, a single mother to a trio of young girls with her own questionable history, though, he starts to question everything he once took for granted and sets off on a path of redemption. As he turns against his white supremacist "family" by working with a black activist, and physically takes steps to literally erase his past by surgically removing the dozens of racist tattoos that cover his entire body, the question becomes less about whether he can leave his past behind but will his past ever leave him go. Based on a true story.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
An entire genre unto themselves, films based on true stories of White Supremacists/Skinheads/Nazis “seeing the light” and seeking redemption for their pasts, have been a staple of the movie industry for decades now. Despite the often extremely tough subject matter, it’s not particularly hard to see why. Who doesn’t love a good redemption story, especially if it happens to be about real-life figures who turn against ideologies that all right-thinking people view as obviously evil? And, yes, with the rise of the right in Europe and, just this week, with certain... less than liberal tweets by the president of the United States of America, it’s a subject that is sadly as timely as ever.
With this comes a couple of obvious complications, though. First, because this genre has been home to so many stone-cold classics – all the more so when you include something like Schindler’s List, which is not traditionally thought of as being part of this genre but clearly is – new films of the sort have to offer something truly special if they are to stand out in an already very crowded field. Second, because these stories are so extraordinary in and of themselves, it’s easy for films about them to be a bit neglectful of the elements that make for great cinema.
Skin, for all that is so very, very good about it, never quite entirely escapes these two traps.
Skin is the feature-length expansion of writer/ director Guy Nattiv’s own Oscar-winning short film of the same name (though the short was co-written with fellow Israeli filmmaker, Sharon Maymon) and it is perhaps Nattiv’s own background that is the most interesting thing about it – though not necessarily in a good way.
On the one hand, it’s particularly impressive that an Israeli filmmaker could make something this authentically and passionately American. On the other, though, that Skin looks like it was made by a US native rather than an outsider actually robs it of a potentially unique viewpoint; one quite unlike that of any “skinhead” film made before. It’s strange, but however impressive it is that Nattiv uncannily captures a section of American society that is, presumably, very far removed from his own life, it still feels like something of a lost opportunity.
Skin is a very fine and undeniably emotionally resonant entry into this particular genre, but it is also overly familiar. Nattiv should, by all rights, bring something to the genre that most other filmmakers simply can’t. As an Israeli, he comes at this material from an outsider’s point of view but, as a Jew, there’s obviously something very personal about this story too. Sadly, there is just never any sense of this unique dichotomy as Nattiv does, ironically, too good a job of adapting to the material at hand.
Unfortunately, this lack of distinctiveness applies to the film as a piece of cinema too. Skin is, without a doubt, an engrossing and often incredibly powerful film while you watch it but, for all of its many, many virtues, it has somehow failed to stick with me in the weeks since I saw it at an advance press preview. Nattiv certainly brings out the often harrowing intensity of the story he is telling and scenes like those that depict the painful removal of Bryon’s tattoos pack a seriously visceral punch, but there’s something just a bit rote about the way the story plays out and a lack of vividness about the characters themselves.
This despite the true story behind the film being anything but rote and the characters being both well written and impeccably portrayed by the likes of Vera Farmiga, Mike Colter, Bill Camp, and, most especially, Danielle Macdonald (reprising her role from the short) and, in a career-best performance, Jamie Bell. Indeed, if anything from the film did really stay with me, it must surely be Bell’s spectacular work here. He has always been a talented actor, but the transformation he goes through here extends far beyond what is achieved with the already very impressive makeup work.
This is all to say that it’s hard to truly criticise what is ultimately a very fine piece of work, but however good Skin is, its star aside, it never quite makes the jump to being an honest-to-goodness classic. Still, “really bloody good” isn’t bad. It’s not exactly a good time, but Skin is still easily well worth your time if you’re in the mood for something challenging and, as his first American feature film and only his fourth overall, it certainly establishes Guy Nattiv as a new filmmaker to keep your eyes out for. Skin narrowly avoids genuine greatness, but it certainly points towards greatness in the future.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: