First, some facts should be stated clearly. This film is about child abuse; pedophilia. Nothing of that nature is depicted on-screen. Some scenes were edited together from individual performances; information about the precautions taken with the child actors is available.
I would say it’s not the kind of film that will give you nightmares; it doesn’t reach to make you uncomfortable — not in the way the hysteria of Requiem for a Dream or the dead baby scene of Trainspotting really provoke. And in the same way that Julien Donkey-Boy dwells within the subject of schizophrenia but remains detached from melodrama for its dramatic material, Mysterious Skin presents its characters and observes the effect on them in an almost neutral, dispassionate manner, extraordinarily empathetic by treating them as real human beings and not shallow finger puppets ready-made to demonstrate a point.
There is technical artistry to it as well. Critics have given complaints about rapid cutting in action films for years, but most of the time they’re also reacting against the kind of shaky shot that is made indecipherable by being displayed so briefly. But what happens when each shot is quite coherent? Furthermore, what if the film’s intended tone aligns with the itchy, restless feeling fast cutting can provide? This film has several occasions of quick cutting; but more than that, through and through, an impression of rapidity is made because each shot pushes forward to the next object of focus, the next piece of information. There are no redundancies and few moments of quiet contemplation — and yet the audience is expected to comprehend as well as react, for when the film and its makers refuse to deliberately emphasize (“milk”, if you will) the tragedy and injustice of the children’s post-traumatic lives, we the audience are forced to think for ourselves.
What conclusions can be drawn? Well, Neil may have began to identify as gay before what happened, but his drive towards prostitution seems unnatural, especially since he shows no real enjoyment or satisfaction even for the money involved; although he accepts what has taken place, his whole life has been changed. Brian, already destined for the league of unathletic, bespeckled outsiders, becomes wrapped up in fantasies of alien abduction and will probably remain there, in one way or another. If there is hope in this picture it comes from the days ahead, from their potential to finally fully acknowledge the past and move on…but the present is too serious to act as a foil for the affirmation a hopeful ending could bring.
(A specific note about the ending: I came across this film because I’m a Sigur Rós fan, and the way their gentle piano comes trailing in over Neil’s last thoughts and that final image is quite powerful — and haunting, as well, for ending credits are often used as a way to sum up and disengage the viewer from the film, but that meandering loop leaves no space between the end of the story and the beginning of the credits, and no room to walk away once they start. It is a poignant, potent, blurred ending for a story of the same traits; an excellent moment by a perfect fusion of film and music.)
Maybe you don’t want the kind of intensity that will have you gripping the sides of your chair, wandering through the “bottomless black holes” of some stranger’s past, whom you may never recognize as such but is certainly out there, similarly scarred but hopefully moving towards a better future than these two. Perhaps that kind of connection with the world just isn’t your idea of an evening’s entertainment, in which case I don’t blame you for letting some potential unpleasantness rest; you probably encounter plenty of troubles before grappling with fictional downers. But, for whatever reason you may have, if you find yourself willingly staying through to the end, it may end up doing you some good.