'Skin': Film Review | TIFF 2018
Jamie Bell stars as a white supremacist from the Midwest grappling with his allegiance to the movement in Israeli director Guy Nattiv's first U.S.-set movie.
Jamie Bell, the British actor who first hit the big time as a teenager in the surprise hit Billy Elliot, regularly delivers sterling, range-demonstrating work. Many highlights in that résumé should have by now, in a just universe, kicked him up another notch in recognition but have failed to do so. He's so unlucky his one comic-book franchise casting to date was in 2015's massive underperformer Fantastic Four, wherein he was nearly unrecognizable under a virtual ton of pixels as CGI character The Thing.
But Bell's intense, physically demanding and ultimately moving turn in Skin as real-life figure Bryon Widner, an American white supremacist who turned his back on the movement, is likely to do the trick. Awards-bestowing bodies, to paraphrase Sylvia Plath, love a Nazi, at least on film (just ask Edward Norton re: American History X, or Ralph Fiennes in relation to Schindler's List), especially one who rejects the movement.
Israeli director Guy Nattiv's bio-drama (his first U.S.-set feature after Magic Men, The Flood and Strangers) has its flaws, but the performances across the board are outstanding, with Bell first among equals, and that's saying something when you have a cast that includes Patti Cake$' Danielle Macdonald, as well as Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga. Moreover, at a time when neo-Nazis, white supremacists and peddlers of all kinds of hate have been emboldened and increasingly visible around the world, now is an apt moment for a film that explores what lures disenfranchised people to such cults and, in addition to offering understanding, shows that it is possible for people to change. Assembled with exactly the kind of professional polish that ensures everything looks just a little bit rough around the edges, with desaturated color and handheld cameras, this accessibly told story has plenty of potential to go wide.
Inspired by a viewing of the MSNBC documentary about Widner called Erasing Hate, directed by Bill Brummell, Nattiv reportedly began developing Skin back in 2011, which just goes to show that the far-right was gaining visibility long before the 2017 protests in Charlottesville. Borrowing a powerful ready-made metaphor embedded in the doc, Skin is structured as a series of flashbacks that recount Bryon's past, while in the present he undergoes a series of immensely painful plastic surgeries to remove the many tattoos he's accumulated on his face over the years. (He's also a tattoo artist himself.) The images, mostly in black ink, depict cut-throat razors dripping blood and symbols from Viking lore that were co-opted by the white supremacist group he joined, an outfit calling themselves the Vinlanders Social Club. Not only do they make reintegrating into normal society difficult, the tattoos make Bryon instantly recognizable and therefore findable by the very people he wishes to avoid.
Turns out, Bryon ran away as a young teen to escape his alcoholic, abusive parents and fell under the spell of Fred Krager (Camp), aka "Hammer," the leader of the Vinlanders, a charismatic figure with a persuasive, baritone oratorical style and political ambitions who likes to style himself as the father of this small cell of misfits. His partner, Shareen Krager (Farmiga), who insists everyone calls her "mom," is a no less sinisterly mesmeric, prone to throwing her arms around her adoptive children and kissing them inappropriately on the lips. A co-dependent quasi-maternal seducer with ratty hair and a sozzled smile, her specialty is encouraging others, especially young recruits, to abuse drugs and drink themselves stupid in order to normalize her own addictions. Together, Fred and Shareen are like the landlords of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, licensing the kids to have all the fun they want before they turn them into tattooed, brainwashed donkeys for the cause.
For it transpires that the Vinlanders are not just into partying and marching about shouting "Blood and Soil!" They also like to beat up people of color whenever possible and burn down mosques. As the film begins, it's subtle but still clear that Bryon is starting to grow tired of the life. On a march in Ohio, black anti-Fascist organizer Daryle Jenkins (Mick Colter) finds a tiny chink in Bryon's emotional defenses and decides he's going to turn Bryon, in other words persuade him to leave the Vinlanders, transforming "human garbage into human beings."
Even more instrumental in the process is Bryon's burgeoning relationship with single mother Julie (swiftly rising star Macdonald), a woman with her own abuse-laden backstory who also found herself drawn to the neo-Nazi movement. That attraction has since subsided and one of the things that brings her and Bryon closer is his offer to disguise the swastika inking on her thigh by turning it into a more acceptable Goth-style picture of a bat on a log.
By slow degrees, Bryon comes to see Julie and her daughters — musically gifted eldest Desiree (Zoe Colletti), middle child Sierra (Kyle Rogers) and excessively cute littlest Iggy (Colbi Gannett), as well as his sweet-tempered Rottweiler named Boss which brought them together in the first place — as his real family instead of Fred, Shareen and the other Vinlanders. But even moving to another city won't stop them from trying to pull him back into the movement, which leads to tragic results.
It's around this point that some viewers might begin to wonder how much the events we see actually happened and how much was, per the opening titles, inspired by real events, which could be real events that happened to entirely different people. The storytelling's credibility certainly starts to feel strained around the point where Bryon is shot by his erstwhile adoptive brothers in arms after being roped into participating in a racial murder and event which, as far as I can ascertain, didn't actually happen to Widner.
That's not to say that group he ran with in the past, who were actually call the Hammerskins, didn't do atrocious things like beat a black homeless man to death. Nevertheless, there's something a bit queasy-making about the film's full-on plunge into melodrama in the last act as Bryon and Julie go on the run and try to escape the gang. At its lowest point, the pic asks the audience to cry and mourn for the death of a beloved pet, cued by sad music on Dan Romer's score, a scene that's frankly much more plangent than one not long before it where four Muslim men (who between them have less lines to speak than the dog) are murdered.
Personally, I don't think it was any of the filmmakers' intention to imply that dogs' lives are more important than Muslims. But the contrast doesn't sit well, and it's not inconceivable in these hyper-critical times that other viewers may find it offensive, especially since Nattiv is an Israeli, albeit one who supports Shimon Peres rather than Benjamin Netanyahu, as he was at pains to point out during a post-screening Q&A at TIFF. The urge somewhere along the line to make the story more dramatic and commercial comes at the risk of making it less credible. Paradoxically, it takes away from the simple evocative core of Widner's original story, one about a man who wished to remake himself morally and physically. It's a shame that wasn't considered sufficient in and of itself, especially with such a powerful, beautifully modulated performance in hand from Bell.
Production: A Maven Pictures presentation of a Sight Unseen Pictures, New Native Pictures, PaperChase Films, Lost Lane Entertainment, Tugawood Pictures, Brookstreet Pictures, Come What May production, in association with Allusionist Picture House, Hua Wen Movie Group
Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Daniel Henshall, Bill Camp, Louisa Krause, Zoe Colletti, Kylie Rogers, Colbi Gannett, Mike Colter, Vera Farmiga
Producers: Jaime Ray Newman, Guy Nattiv, Oren Moverman, Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Dillon D Jordan
Co-producers: Ged Dickersin, Rick Gerson, Henri Fink, Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin, Stephen Mao, Sheila Gray, Hardy Justice, Lu Jia
Executive producers: Zachery Ty Bryan, Nic Marshall, Robert L. Hymers III, Trevor Matthews, Nick Gordon, Lee-Ann Corry, Tommee May, Dale Rosenbloom, Meriam Alrashid, Krios Song, Peter Sobiloff, Michael Sobiloff, Shaohua Huang, Na Yang, Daniel Negreanu, David Kang, Lawrence Cancellieri, Randy Cancellieri, Enrico Saraiva, Mario Peixoto, Siena Oberman
Director of photography: Arnaud Potier
Production designer: Mary Lena Colston
Costume designer: Mirren Gordon-Crozier
Editor: Lee Percy, Michael Taylor
Music: Dan Romer
Music supervisor: Lauren Marie Mikus, Mikki Itzigsohn
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Jodi Angstreich, Maribeth Fox
Make-Up, Tattoo and Prosthetic Designer: Stevie Bettles
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: ICM Partners