‘Skin’ leaves a mark
Written/directed by: Guy Nattiv
Starring: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, and Bill Camp
“Skin” – “Skin” is an ugly movie. An ugly movie about fractured race relations, a problem that has plagued the United States for hundreds of years, ever since Manifest Destiny became a twisted thought, the slave trade opened for business and the shameful list goes on and on.
Pick a sin. Pick a year. For all the positives about America, malevolent transgressions also plague our country’s history. Racism is America’s original sin, and tragically, it continues to live, breathe and – in some spaces - thrive in 2019.
Writer/director Guy Nattiv’s “Skin” is set in the 2009 Midwest during the grays of fall and winter, as the Viking Social Club sits in the countryside, surrounded by brown snow, muddy fields and dormant, leafless trees. This group of men – and some women - willingly accept and embrace white power teachings, and their hate speech is equally matched by rugged, sporadic violence. Their aggression is carefully orchestrated too, and the latest incident broke out between white nationals and black residents in Columbus, Ohio that resulted in 19 injuries, including one perpetrated by Byron “Babs” Widner (Jaime Bell) on a 14-year-old African-American boy.
The skies may be gray, but on that particular night, the two primarily colors were white and black.
Babs’ skin is also white and black, as his white face and shaved head are covered in black tattoos (ironic, isn’t it?), including a sizable arrow resting just below and rising above his right eye. In this case, “eyesore” has a double-meaning, and his tats most certainly prevent him from working at any sort of “normal” 9-to-5. Somewhere along the way, however, he hopes for something better, something righteous, and it begins after meeting Julie (Danielle Macdonald) and her three girls Desiree, Sierra and Iggy.
This is a small story about huge themes, and as troubling as Bell looks, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him, as Nattiv ensures that he points his unfiltered camera on Babs throughout the 2-hour runtime. In his early 30s, Babs’ harsh exterior masks his guilt, and the film captures his possible shot at redemption, that is heavily tempered by his past physical choices and current immediate environment.
Everything about “Skin” feels gritty, raw and unseemly, and while Bell rightfully dominates and carries the picture, Vera Farmiga delivers the best performance as Babs’ adoptive mom Shareen. Known to everyone in the club as Ma – and married to its leader Fred (Bill Camp) - Shareen certainly is in tune with her mothering instincts. She’s gentle with these young, lost men and embraces them with kindness, warm meals and love, but Shareen never wears a speck of makeup and her long gray and brown locks might remind one of Margaret White (Piper Laurie) from Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976). You know…Carrie’s mom, and we know how that story went down.
Nattiv opens a door and shoves us down into a world that we hoped didn’t still exist. We might see racist images or hear comments on the 24-hour news, but under the murkiest conditions, “Skin” shines a spotlight on one of its distinct faces.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.