Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Back in February, I spent an afternoon watching all of the 2019 Oscar-nominated short films. This included the eventual live-action winner SKIN from Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv. At the time, I thought it had potential as a full-length feature and that it should star Jamie Bell. Come to find out, a feature film was nearing completion, and Jamie Bell had the starring role.
What I had not considered is that Nattiv would lessen the shock value of the original narrative, going instead for a fictional account of a real-life event. I had let the short’s already identified ideas cloud my expectations of what SKIN should have been as opposed to being a viewer and seeing what happens. Knowing now what I didn’t know then, I can readily admit that Nattiv’s change in story and direction makes SKIN more palpable and timelier. But it’s equally as disturbing as his original concept.
Jamie Bell stars as Bryon “Babs” Widner, a runaway that has been raised by a racist, Nazi-worshipping hate group called the “Vinlanders.” Their belief system is borne from Nordic/Viking tradition. Its leader, Fred “The Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp), is as much an expert in manipulating lost souls looking for shelter as he is in instigating acts of violence. At the outset, Bryon is leading a fascist march in Columbus, Ohio, in 2005. No tiki torches in sight, just a herd of skinheads looking to go nose-to-nose with persons of color.
It doesn’t take much provocation before the two sides turn violent, leaving some running for safety while the Vinlanders continue to wail on the protestors. Bryon is later apprehended by authorities and is firm in maintaining allegiance with his “family.” That eventually changes, however.
It’s not a sudden epiphany. Bryon doesn’t look in the mirror starring agape at what he has become: a fascist that bears hate through his actions and by virtue of the tattoos that run up and down his face and body. He meets Julia (Danielle Macdonald) and her three daughters. Their relationship is tumultuous, starting, and stalling over and again. And just when the now-married couple feels secure, Bryon becomes very angry, picking at wounds that haven’t had time to scab over. Relationship over. Now a man with nothing left to lose, Bryon looks to escape his hate-filled past and face change with the help of a black activist.
SKIN has a simplistic title, yet for Nattiv, that is just the jumping-off point. His feature is not only about white supremacists against black activists. To pigeonhole the drama in such fashion is missing what Nattiv is truly exploring: outwardly displaying your beliefs in ornate fashion (in this case being heavily tattooed), signifying an unwavering loyalty to a cause and to intimidate others. To accomplish what was a real-life racial rehabilitation project (and the subject of the 2011 documentary ERASING HATE), Nattiv intersperses glimpses of Widner having his tattoos removed to start life anew. Call it baptism by laser removal. These moments are more precise and glossier in their depiction, whereas the rest of the picture wallows in the griminess of rural existence. Dead tree limbs, empty beer cans, and clothes so dingy you can almost smell the leftover cigarette smoke.
Matching the film’s rural aesthetic is Bell’s brilliant, transformative performance. Bulked up and covered in tattoos, it’s almost hard to believe this is the same Jamie Bell that danced his heart out in BILLY ELLIOT nearly 20 years ago – and more recently portrayed Elton John’s longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin in ROCKETMAN. The physicality Bell displays in SKIN pairs nicely with another little-seen feature he did this year titled DONNYBROOK. In both films, he is downtrodden and sinew. Grungy. Living in an America where making things great again comes with repercussions. As Bryon Widner, the backlash is from his surrogate family. Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga are devilishly twisted as the heads of the household, feigning compassion to pinch strays from the streets and be part of their Nordic social club. Tough love and maternal warmth are the parents’ modus operandi, and both are very convincing in wayward conditioning youths.
SKIN is an incredible story of a man who reached a racial catharsis through extreme means. While Nattiv’s adaptation of his Oscar-winning short does a narrative U-turn, and does get unduly sentimental near the end, the performances by Bell, Camp, and Farmiga will hold your attention until the credits roll.
SKIN is now playing in limited release.