Skin, from Academy Award-winning director Guy Nattiv, is the true story of a white supremacist who sees his wayward ways and finds the courage to break free, though that journey is not without cost.
With the news full of gun violence and hate, one would be predisposed to not want to see those subjects in a feature film. And yet, it is these “slice-of-life” type stories that draw us into the cinema in the first place.
Skin, the first feature-length film from Academy Award-winner Guy Nattiv, examines the hate and the violence that emanates from a skinhead, white power group. The Vinelanders Social Club. At its center is Bryon Widner, played by Jamie Bell with Widner’s story as the basis of Nattiv’s screenplay.
There’s a fierceness in the way that Bell approached the onscreen character of Widner, an intelligence that rises above his station and the internal torment that comes with the struggle to suppress it. This becomes clearer as the supporting characters are introduced, namely Fred Krager (Bill Camp) and Shareen (Vera Farmiga).
In its opening frames, Nattiv sets the stage from which the VSC gains its power, its prominence and unfortunately, its danger to society at large through a renaissance faire in which Fred gathers his flock of followers by announcing his candidacy for a prominent political role.
As his flock celebrate, they take to antagonizing Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald) and her three children, which Bryon immediately puts a stop to. Nattiv uses this moment to form the bond of their relationship. As they take off, Fred reasserts his authority over the entire gang, but gives Bryon special attention. By doing this, Nattiv allows us to feel some of Bryon’s anguish.
The feeling is amplified when they find a smaller group of young boys by a river, being miscreants. One of them, Gavin (Russel Posner) looked like he hadn’t eaten for days, giving us an opportunity to witness Fred in action who lures the boy into the warm arms of loving parents, much the same as Bryon was.
A son is nothing without his mother. We’ve learned that from past stories and though she is not Norman Bate’s mother, I highly doubt Shareen (Famiga) would qualify as mother of the year herself. Though when Gavin is first brought in to their encampment, she seems like a very warm and loving mother, and yet through the searing veneer we know she is absolute trouble, something that I thought Farmiga did very well.
This isn’t the first time that Bryon Widner’s story is being told. A 2011 documentary, Erasing Hate, sees Widner’s first person story being told. Nattiv takes some liberties and within this dramatic retelling, we get very strong performances out of Bell as he starts to see through his own skin, literally.
Widner’s story here is not without its positive tribulations either as Julie sets boundaries to protect not only herself, but her children too, who bring Widner to realize the error of his ways. He begins to understand the unnecessary hate and wonton violence that he has wrecked, he realizes that it is not too late to change.
In order to finally be convinced that he can save himself, he meets with Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter) of One People’s Project. His role in this entire affair has been enhanced in order to make Widner’s decision that much more impactful, eventually leading to the painful removal of every tattoo from his face.
While the performances are strong and the message is clear, the underlying tension covers up an underwhelming story. The movie is timely given the current affairs of our nation. I was not expecting Skin to dive deeper into the problems that plague this nation. But it does give us a glimpse in to just how susceptible we all are. Skin’s strong performances, especially from Jamie Bell make this a film worth exploring.
Now in a limited theatrical release and on DirecTV, Skin is rated R. All photos courtesy of A24.