Join Soundtrack Stream to Research the article “Skin review – Jamie Bell swaps nazism for love in moral tale of far right | Toronto film festival 2018”
The brand of fascism on display in Skin, Israeli film-maker Guy Nattiv’s first feature produced in the United States, feels increasingly remote. Nazism is on the rise in the US, but it’s not all spitting and yowling from feral soldiers in training. They have cleaned themselves up and had slick haircuts in place of the standard skinhead look. They’re on TV and the internet and electoral ballots. Even if Skin wasn’t drawn from true events that played out during the mid-noughties, it would feel entrenched in a recent past.
Bryon Widner, a member of the white supremacist group the Vinlanders Social Club, belonged to a different era of hate. When we first see him, he’s a monster in the mould of Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard from American History X, an unavoidable point of comparison for a film that traces an essentially identical transformation. He spends his free time slugging beers, blasting speed-metal, and having aggressive, unromantic sex with the girlfriend he then shoves out of the door. When not earning his keep as a tattoo artist, he busies himself by beating protesters to a pulp and torching mosques. Two hours later, the power of love has reacquainted him with his conscience, and he’s forsaken his adopted family for a real one – a wife, and three daughters he cares for as if they were his. The real Widner currently travels the country preaching a gospel of salvation and reformation, and Nattiv’s film attempts to render his story a bit more vividly to the same moral ends.
Jamie Bell shoulders the work of illustrating this metamorphosis, playing Widner’s journey to the light in carefully measured increments. Even before his earliest inklings of defection, he demonstrates he is not like the rest of his Nazi cohort. If you can judge character by how someone treats children and animals, Widner’s tenderness with both marks him as salvageable. He loves his dog Boss with every fibre of his being (guess what happens to the pooch), and defends his future stepdaughters when a musical performance at the Vinlanders’ compound turns nasty. Shacking up with their mother, Julie (Danielle Macdonald, of Patti Cake$), a former Nazi sympathiser who has enthusiastically renounced the ideology, sows the seeds of doubt in his lifestyle.
But Nattiv does his due diligence, ensuring we can see what Widner sees in this glorified cult. As he spells out for Julie, the Vinlanders offered him community when he had no family to turn to, set him up with a job and took care of him. He recognises himself in the invented character of Gavin (Russell Posner), a young recruit seduced by the offer of a drink from leader Fred (Bill Camp) and affection from den mother Shareen (Vera Farmiga). He orders the kid to scram as the first test of his loyalty to the group, and yet we also get the sense that he’s trying to save him from a similar fate.
Bell squeezes out someboiling rage and despair from the conflict within his soul, priming him for the ultimate act of penance: the excruciating laser removal of the white nationalist iconography inked on to his head and hands. As an actor, he doesn’t get a lot to work with in some of these pivotal scenes, nonverbal in a hospital bed and obscured by extreme epidermis close-ups of his medical procedure. Still, he can telegraph severity and softness with a glance or simple body language. He gradually inches towards his own humanity without losing touch with the beast within, keeping the character grounded while the movie around him repeatedly angles towards sensationalism.
He pulls his own weight and then some in this character study, but Nattiv wants the film to be more. The director frames Widner’s change of heart as explicit ethical instruction, complete with explanatory title cards before the credits, and in doing so, misplaces his ambitions. Widner’s path was so long and winding that the notion of a modern-day Nazi being swayed by a sit-down with Skin – even making the effort to seek out this small indie that has yet to be picked up for distribution – is naive. It’s never been easier for fascists to convince themselves of their own normality and the film loses efficacy as a public service project. It took Widner years of inner torment, a full reexamination of beliefs, and the total upending of his life to set him on a new course. One can’t help but doubt the impact a movie would have had on him. Widner’s speaking tours show change is possible, through hard work and serious introspection. The dramatisation packages it for consumption in a single afternoon.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Skin review – Jamie Bell swaps nazism for love in moral tale of far right | Toronto film festival 2018