Jamie Bell Turns Heads In “Skin”

It has been an interesting year for filmmaker Guy Nattiv. Back in January, he took his feature Skin to the Sundance Film Festival, right as his short of the same name was catching on as a potential Oscar winner. The movie got strong buzz at Sundance, then saw its star shine a bit more as the short won the Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. Now, after stops at the Tribeca Film Festival and other preview places, the flick now hits theaters (after having been made available on DirectTV for a bit now). Skin is a movie with a tremendous lead performance, though not quite enough else to warrant a recommendation.

Expanding on the idea of his short, the film is also based on an MSNBC documentary from 2012. When we meet Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), he’s covered from head to toe in racist tattoos and a major part of a white supremacy gang run by his father Fred ‘Hammer’ Krager (Bill Camp). He’s also being hunted by the FBI for some heinous crimes. However, all is not lost for Bryon. When he meets Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), along with her three young daughters from previous relationships, he falls in love. She’s suspicious of his life, but believes in his willingness to change. Spurred on by the desire to do right by the new women in his life, he attempts to leave the movement behind. This includes having 25 painful tattoo removal surgeries done, not just to help him escape, but also to assist the FBI in decoding what the racist codes mean. However, the gang is not content to just let him leave in peace. Nattiv writes and directs, with cinematography by Arnaud Potier as well as a score by Dan Romer. Supporting players include Zoe Margaret Colletti, Mike Colter, Vera Farmiga, Daniel Henshall, Louisa Krause, Mary Stuart Masterson, and more.

Jamie Bell turns in rather incredible work here. Even if the screenplay doesn’t fully provide the material to watch his character believably transform, his performance is always captivating. Equally adept at showcasing the hate, the conflict, and ultimately the regret inside Bryon Widner, Bell has never been better. The physical transformation, as well as the way he simply uses expressions, are truly something to behold. It’s hard to tell whether he’s so good that he elevates the movie around him or if the surrounding material holds him back from even greater heights, but regardless of that, he’s impressive from start to finish.

Skin has one major shortcoming, and it torpedoes the work overall. The issue is, Bryon’s evolution just happens. There isn’t enough shown or told to make you buy into it. Again, Bell is really trying on his end, but Nattiv doesn’t match his efforts. This creates some frustration, since a true life tale, one made to feel incredibly realistic, has that sort of Hollywood flaw within. Additionally, the film opts to gratuitously kill a dog, which was wholly unnecessary and decidedly off-putting, even if you only see the aftermath, which is still horrifying. Nothing would have been lost with the exclusion of that moment.

Tomorrow, audiences who haven’t watched the flick On Demand yet can see Skin, as it enters theaters on a limited basis. Jamie Bell nearly makes this one worth watching all on his own, but the movie needs ever so slightly more, and doesn’t get it. The ensemble around Bell is solid, though under used, while Nattiv actually found more to say with his short than with this feature. The movie isn’t bad, but it comes up a little short. Now, your mileage may vary, so you should see it for yourself, but chalk this one up as a bit of a disappointment…

Skin is in theaters this weekend and already available On Demand through DirectTV.

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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