Review – Skin (2019)

by Old King Clancy

I’d not heard of Skin when it made it’s way to me, but the topic of a reformed white supremacist in today’s racially charged world with the backing of A24, I was interested to see how it played out. While I can see what the film is going for, I think it’s missing a few key steps in making the whole thing work properly.

The film tells the true story of Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), a member of the skinhead group, the Vinlanders Social Club, run by his adoptive parents Fred and Shareen Krager (Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga). Bryon is covered head-to-toe in racist tattoos and symbols and considered one of the volatile members of the group, even going so far as to carve a “SS” symbol into the face of a young black man during a race riot.

After meeting struggling single mother Julie Price (Danielle MacDonald), herself a reformed racist trying to raise her three daughters in a better life, and facing an arrest for his SS carving, Bryon starts to question his place within the Vinlanders and what Fred hopes to achieve through his violent methods. He starts spending more time with Julie and her daughters, eventually making the decision to leave the group entirely but struggles to do so, partly because of his familiar ties to Fred and Shareen, but mostly because of the constant death threats to his family because of his numerous tattoos. With no option, Bryon seeks out Daryle Lamont Jenkis (Mike Colter), an activist who helps reformed racists escape their old lives, to protect him, and his new family from his old one.

I fully appreciate the message of the story, Bryon is a violent, volatile, young man but he deserves a second chance like anyone does, but I don’t think the message comes across properly. For starters, there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for Bryon to become disenfranchised, it’s a little too quick for my liking – and factually iffy with timelines being shifted around – but I can look passed it since the focus was on how Bryon got away, and not why he got away. But even with that, there’s some issues, as important as Daryle seems on the outset, in truth him and Bryon only spend a maximum of three or four scenes together. The film seemed to be pushing more on Bryon’s difficulties within the Vinlanders and their belief of his betrayal.

To the film’s benefit there is a lot of potential there with the Vinlanders being a genuine threat, in fact the first hour of the film is a little too slow, but picks up drastically once the death threats start coming. I just felt like there was a better balancing act that could’ve been done to include Daryle a bit more.

The acting is decent in the film but other than Bell, there’s no-one that really stands out. Colter does what he can with Daryle, but like I said there wasn’t enough of the character to really do anything with him. Oddly, I felt something similar to Julie, there was definitely potential there with her, she wasn’t this perfect beautiful angel that saved Bryon, but was an abrasive, overweight, single mother who had touched on racism in her past. It was to the film’s benefit because it avoided a lot of clichés with Julie as a love interest, but she often felt stunted as a character. She never went further beyond the woman who finds herself questioning “if it’s worth staying with Bryon through the threats on her life,” which is strange because there could’ve been a lot to work with there.

Farmiga and Camp are interesting as Shareen and Fred. Fred especially given his fatherly relationship with Bryon, but with a sadistic, violent edge, that he doesn’t lash out like Bryon. Fred carries a heavy threat of violence wherever he goes and we see flashes of the charisma that convinced so many lost youths to follow him though clearly that’s cracking by the time the film starts. Shareen isn’t given as much to do which is a shame cause I thought Farmiga was given a lot of potential with her character, seeing Bryon as her own son, and balancing between being protective of him and using that relationship to her advantage. This was a good role for Farmiga, but it could’ve been a lot better.

Star of the show is Jamie Bell and for good reason. It’s a very good performance from him who spends the entire film tattooed except for a few flash-forward scenes where we see a very painful laser removal. He completely inhabits Bryon’s hair-trigger temper and never lets it up throughout the film, always feeling like he’s one word away from lashing out. While he does soften up as the film goes on that volatile nature is always there and blows up in his face when Julie or her daughters are unintentionally in the firing zone. The lack of any specific moment to signal Bryon change in beliefs does make his arc a little iffy due to it lacking an anchoring point, but in a way that works to its advantage by allowing Bell to keep elements of Bryon constant throughout, giving a more subtle change to his character, but I feel like something more substantial would’ve worked better. Out of everything, Bell’s performance is the best part of the film and worth seeing for alone, but it’s definitely missing key elements to make it a great role.

The film is the English language debut of Guy Nattiv, who previously tackled heavy racial themes in his Oscar winning short also called Skin (no relation to this film) and he does a decent job here. As I said previously, the first hour does drag which is a pity since a lot of the set-up feels wasted. In particular, Bryon’s decision to leave the Vinlanders, and in a way his relationship with Julie, despite being one of the main focuses of the film, it never felt fully developed, and a lot of talk with nothing really being said.

Where Nattiv works best is when he has the Vinlanders becoming a threat, one of the best scenes in the film is when Fred has Bryon brought to a scrap yard to answer for his actions and you can see the tension between Bryon, Fred, and the other Vinlanders all tearing at the seams with other members questioning Fred’s decisions about Bryon. That fear of someone finally snapping on either side is often palpable and is felt both directly – by way of a surprisingly intense attack on Julie’s home – and indirectly when Bryon’s fears get the better of him during a conversation with Julie’s daughter regarding a tattoo. To keep that threat up for as long as Nattiv is able to is an impressive task and he pulls it off quite well.

I don’t want to come out of this calling Skin a bad film because it’s not, I just think it’s a little more hollow than expected. The racism angle felt like an afterthought with the complete lack of scenes for Daryle, someone important enough to be singled out in the closing montage, and the relationships Bryon had either being too dull to justify their importance as it was with Julie, or not giving enough time despite having a lot of potential as it was with Fred, Shareen, and the other Vinlanders. Wasted potential feels right between Bell’s solid performance as Bryon, Nattiv’s handle on tension, and growing threats there is a good movie here on the outset, it just needed better structure to hold it all together.

 

I am giving Skin a 3 out of 5 Hairpieces!

 

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