Mysterious Skin and Black Snake Moan

Yesterday dawned bright and early and found me in a movie watching mood. Like all of my days lately, I noticed themes and serendipitous occurrences most of the day. The good Lord must have thought it was “let’s deal with your past through movies day.” The movies I chose to watch were, at first glance, as far apart in subject matter as night and day, but as it turns out, both movies were close studies of similar subjects and both illustrated in different ways the power of forgiveness and close relationships. Either movie could easily slip under your radar, as movies come and go so fast lately.

The first movie I watched I’d never heard of, but the description of Mysterious Skin on IFC was intriguing. One boy is a gay hustler and another believes he was abducted by aliens, but they both share a dark secret from their pasts. It was a very difficult movie to watch because of the subject matter; child abuse by a trusted adult. We are given the viewpoints of each of these boys growing up and at first we are perplexed about what they had in common. But, by the end of the film we realize that they share similar traumatic events and how they each choose to deal with these events make up the majority of the film. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is an incredibly underrated actor and deserved much more attention because of this role. His childhood friends are played admirably by Michelle Trachtenberg and Jeffrey Licon. The other boy, played by Brady Corbet is also superb. I suppose the toughest part of this movie is watching the child actors portray what actually happened at their Little League coach’s house after practices. The coach is creepily portrayed by Bill Sage. And sadly, like many movies dealing with childhood trauma, there’s a hint of blame cast toward the mothers of each of these boys. The children playing these boys at age 8 are remarkable. I found the boys and their problems incredibly realistic down to the little known detail of nosebleeds, which is common among survivors. I’m always leery of child actors trying to play “make believe” with adult subjects, but you know what? It’s only an “adult” subject after the fact. Only child actors can portray the innocence (and the innocence lost) as convincingly as those of us who perhaps went through it to begin with. Regardless of what “life lessons” some will try to take away from this film, don’t succumb to the extremely easy road of judging these characters by our “book learned” standards of moral behavior. Some will try to lay blame. Some will try to find some confirmation in their preconceived notions about sexuality. How people grow up to be the way they are is an extremely complicated subject. Don’t assume you can intuit easy answers. Anyone who has ever lived through such childhood trauma knows that no one else is entitled to judge you but you. No one, who hasn’t experienced the same thing can ever claim to “understand” it. Understanding is something only the victims can work out for themselves. I’d recommend this film for those who do truly want to understand or for those willing to confront issues they are now ready to confront, but only if you leave your prurient interests about the subject matter or your self righteous judgments behind.

Black Snake Moan is another surprise for me. Samuel L. Jackson plays a blues guitarist named Lazarus whose wife leaves him for his younger brother. Lazarus comes close to killing his brother in a bar, but if Lazarus is anything, he’s a righteous man. Christina Ricci plays a sexually abused woman/girl who acts out her past abuse, time and again, by allowing anyone to have complete access to her sexuality. She’s in love with Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), yet he’s leaving her to go into the National Guard. She warns him she can’t survive without him there to “control” her urges, but he leaves anyway. From there, she puts herself in one dangerous situation after another until finally one night she is beaten by Ronnie’s “best friend” and left for dead by the side of a country road down the lane from Lazarus’ farm. From there, the movie becomes either very offensive or a complex fable of redemption and forgiveness. The movie does a pretty poor job of illustrating Rae’s “problem” because it portrays her as a nymphomaniac, which any victim of sexual abuse knows is NOT the problem. One acts out through sex, is even compelled to act out, but that doesn’t mean one enjoys it or WANTS it. It’s merely what one thinks is expected! And yes, the men in the movie expect it. In fact, Rae’s problem would have been more believable if it wasn’t the result of abuse in her past, but was just a sexual addiction, which in itself needs no reason, but apparently the psychology of it from the woman’s point of view wasn’t particularly important to the men directing this film. No, for the men, it’s all about being a cuckolded man, taming the lust of women in their lives in whatever form that taming takes, singing about your troubles and purging yourself in music, and finding redemption THROUGH a relationship with the tamed woman or someone who just as righteous as yourself. If it weren’t for the powerful and wonderful acting of Ricci and Jackson, this film would have easily become a parody of itself in the style of Mandingo or some other sexploitation film. Still, despite its flaws, I liked it. And I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s original in a field of so unoriginal writing nowadays. Who knew Jackson could sing the blues so well? I always knew Ricci was a good actress, when she chooses her roles selectively, that is. She’s barely recognizable in this movie, which illustrates how chameleon-like she really is. The suspension of disbelief that any movie requires is definitely necessary to watch this one. It was easy for me to suspend it while watching it because the acting was so good, but don’t expect too much. If you can’t get past the racial thing or the sexual exploitation of women thing, or the simplistic notion that life is cured by music thing, don’t give it a look. But if you do like good blues for the music’s sake, or if you like a folk tale with a pastor, a blues singer, a damaged woman, and an anxiety ridden failed National Guardsman in the mix, or if you like your movies to end well with the redemption of your lead characters, or if it’s just because you like to see Samuel L. Jackson in any movie, then it’s probably something you’d like.

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