Synopsis – A destitute young man, raised by racist skinheads and notorious among white supremacists, turns his back on hatred and violence to transform his life, with the help of a black activist and the woman he loves.
My Take – Among the many ugly and factually wrong things about the United States of America, hands down the continuing existence of white supremacist and Neo-Nazi groups takes the reign for being the worst. Over the years various films have depicted about their ideology and their means of spreading hate, however, in this film, a white power member from the Midwest ends up having second thoughts about his ideology.
While this isn’t the first skinhead redemption film ever made, it earns its authenticity, mainly by also being based on a true story. Taking cues from several other redemption tales, this film from writer/director Guy Nattiv, who just won an Oscar for Best Live Action Short for a film with the same name, transforms the true story of reformed racist Bryon Widner into a powerful, if sensationalist, drama with a fierce central performance from Jamie Bell.
A heartening, inspirational tale to counteract our depressing times. While it might not be an all-out masterpiece like American History X, it still presents an interesting film with a unique story with grand cinematography and an eerily tense score, that’s as powerful as it is ambitious, and explores basic themes about how love triumphs over the darkest recesses of human hatred. Definitely a must watch for fans of A24 and a decent drama film.
The story follows Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), a destitute young man who is raised by racist skinheads and is notoriously known in the community. As the adopted son of two fiercely committed leaders of their local neo-Nazi sect, Shareen (Vera Farmiga) and Fred (Bill Camp), Bryon’s life had been shaped by the white supremacist movement.
Covered head to toe in coded tattoos, Bryon is a walking embodiment of the world in which he was raised. His family fills their nights with wanton acts of hate-fueled violence and fascist marches. However, his dark life sees a ray hope when he meets Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother looking to raise her daughters outside of the influence of the extremist movement.
As their relationship begins to take a new life, Bryon starts to feel guilty about the violence he has been involved with, particularly a slashing of a black teen. With the help of Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), a black activist, Bryon decides it’s finally time to combat the grip the sect has on him, especially if he wants to keep his new family.
Depicting one man’s difficult path to redemption from the darkest corners of the human soul, this film is a haunting story told with an authentic and deeply distressing point of view. The film shows a world not usually portrayed in feature films. While it’s difficult and upsetting to watch, it has an important message for us all. Here, director/writer Guy Nattiv takes an almost documentary approach to the presentation of this story. He knows that the tale is so compelling that he didn’t need to do any more than let the story unfold in a very fluid manner.
There’s a rawness to his way of making the film that is the perfect match for the kind of exposed-nerve story he’s telling. While the first half of the film is comparatively weaker as director Nattiv establishes Bryon’s character and the suffocating life of a neo-Nazi community. The violence, hard boiled dialogue and energetic sex start to feel like a wearying wallow in depravity.
However, the journey to redemption makes for a much tighter and more involving second half. While it is very hard to generate sympathy for a character who, in the first scene, he’s shown carving a swastika into the face of a black teen, Bryon wins over us by showing his willingness to change for the good, despite his internal conflict and external threat working to convince him that a leopard cannot change its spots, never mind eradicate his tattoos. It is this nature of the story and the scale of the mountain that Bryon had to climb that finally makes it into something more compelling.
What director Nattiv also does well is how he depicts a lost youth being recruited for such an organization through the eyes of a homeless teen Bryon and his father figure, Fred, pick up on the streets, with the kid shyly admitting later that all he wanted was a warm meal. Fred’s charismatic slick leader is too into his sham political career to ever tattoo his face like Bryon or directly participate in any crimes, allowing his boys to take the fall for him.
However, what works the most here is the romance between Bryon and Julie, herself a former neo-nazi, with a big swastika tattooed on her thigh. Their relationship is allowed to play out in such a way that we kind of understand Julie when she’s naïve enough to think he can so easily change his life, and the two give their characters a lot of soul, allowing us to invest in the relationship, with them clearly each other’s last real shot at having any kind of life.
If there is anything lacking here is that it feels almost too focused on Bryon’s story, especially as it tries to work in a comeuppance for the group he’s now departed. It feels a bit out of nowhere, grateful as we are to see them come crashing down. Given its subject matter and an unflinching approach to representing the very real, very bad perspectives of these people, the film can be a hard watch, which makes the strengths of its performances all the more important.
The complexity of the performance is intriguing to watch as Jamie Bell struggles between the forces of good and evil. And it is indeed an excellent performance, one that’s already garnering some solid awards buzz. He walks a fine line here, making Widner, at times totally terrifying and then simply sympathetic. He does get a bit of help from the tattoos as they are a constant reminder that his dark past is not just hype but constantly present, like a weird form of a job resume.
Danielle Macdonald is also exceptional, capturing both her fiercely protective relationship with her children and the weary vulnerability of a seen-it-all-before woman sizing up the risks and the rewards of a possible new relationship. Vera Farmiga is also excellent in a role a very unusual for her. Her task here is to make Shareen the kind of caring person that would be a lightning rod to the broke and disenfranchised who come to the group. Many are lacking the love and attention of a kind parent and that’s the image she projects. But, underneath that caring exterior is a soul of pure evil.
What makes the performances all the scarier is that unlike the tattoos Bell sports, Farmiga plays her character where you don’t recognize the evil she represents until she’s pulled you into her world. Farmiga continues to be one of the most consistently strong actors working today, and this performance is another example of her stunning skills.
Bill Camp too is terrifying and charismatic as the slick leader, while Mike Colter gives his character a certain edge unexpected from such films. On the whole, ‘Skin’ is a competent and dark indie film filled with troubling themes and excellent performances.
Directed – Guy Nattiv
Rated – R
Run Time – 120 minutes