Skin

***1/2

Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Skin
"There are some powerful moments in Skin, but however lasting some of its impacts the film isn't as deep as it hopes." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Removal, day one, chin. Not the start of the story, but where it starts to sear, smoke, replace one kind of damage with another. At times literally blistering, Skin is the based on the true story of someone seeking measures of redemption and escape from "meathead racist motherfuckers". A journey complicated and informed by symbols that are as obvious and sometimes crude as the iconography of white supremacy tattooed across a face.

That face is Jamie Bell's - one of a strong cast, including the parental figures of the Vinlanders Social Club, veterans Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga, two familiar faces in a film that does a lot with what's right in front of us. As Bryon, Jamie has a path out is first illuminated by a ukulele folk-band, moppet medley-makers whose mother (Danielle Macdonald, PattiCake$ amongst others) sees something behind Bryon's ku kluk kountenance that others might not.

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Written and directed by the Oscar-winning Guy Nattiv, this film shares a title and year of release with his Academy Award winning short, and though both deal with racism one suspects that the lasting legacy will not be as a DVD extra but a certain amount of confusion. That's before we delve into the eponymous cohort that share elements of subject matter. It's certainly unfair to judge a film because its title looks like others, but it has weaknesses of its own. There are some powerful moments in Skin, but however lasting some of its impacts the film isn't as deep as it hopes.

There's a scene that ends with a shot of a burning car in a snow-covered junkyard, and as stark as it is the context of the 2019 Edinburgh Film Festival where almost every film your reviewer saw seemed to feature a drone shot had me wondering about the lexicon developing around these unnamed aerial auteurs. It might have been the snow that minded me of a certain fence in Fargo, of other ways to show distance and isolation. This is after other lines are drawn, others crossed. As scribe for some of them Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter) is good, but in any film based on a true story one would hope for no less. In seeing what's behind and ahead of his antagonist, a marked man even before anything approaching betrayal, a path is laid out but it's the walking that's difficult.

There are strong moments. "Why'd you get in the truck?" is a freighted question, and it's hard to escape the symbolisms of a new recruit getting a hair cut and washed, "grooming" in more than name. Indeed, it's hard to escape the symbolisms. Riven with marks of one form or another, Skin sometimes seems too much of the surface. The cast, particularly Farmiga and Macdonald are absolutely committed - this is almost a testimonial of a traumatic transformation. Jamie Bell has been described by some as 'unrecognisable' but I had more difficulty because in festival fatigue I got him and Tom Holland mixed up. Bell deserves better than that after almost 20 years on screen but that's perhaps because it's now that he's hit leading man territory.

The film ends with real photographs, after a count of days sufficiently large that there's shock enough that I'll try to preserve it. The makeup and prosthetic work of Stephen Bettles and his team is so close to reality that one never doubts the marks being left or the pain of their removal. So too the quality of the actors. Yet in that proximity to veracity it perhaps loses some of the blur that Never Look Away achieves, here perhaps less art than archive. Skin does not flinch, it feels real, but there's something about it that means it doesn't quite wrinkle or rankle. For all that it does not shy from bleeding its lines are perhaps too clearly defined.

Reviewed on: 26 Jul 2019
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The true story of white supremacist skinhead Bryon Widner and his attempts to leave his extreme right-wing past behind.


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