Skin (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): His struggle to erase his racist identity

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“Skin” is engaging whenever it focuses on its troubled hero’s inner struggle against his racist identity. Although I must point out that the movie is often hampered by its rather heavy-handed storytelling especially during its second half where it makes its points a bit too blatantly, it mostly works thanks to an undeniably captivating performance from its lead actor, and that is why I observed its story and characters with some degree of fascination during my viewing.

Its story is loosely based on the real-life story of a reformed white power skinhead gang named Bryon Widner, who is played by Jamie Bell in the movie. During the opening scene, we see Widner and his fellow gangs violently clashing with a group of demonstrators protesting against racism, and he is certainly quite noticeable for not only his aggressive attitude but also his skin heavily covered with numerous racist tattoos.

He and his fellow gangs are led by Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga), who have exerted considerable influence on them for many years. As shown from one moment, Krager often lures poor homeless kids into his ‘social club’ via the sense of acceptance and attachment, and Widner was once one of such kids. While Krager frequently brainwashes his men through the rituals and codes which are the twisted appropriation of Viking cultural elements, his wife functions as a warm, generous mother figure in contrast to his tough authoritarian personality, and they certainly work well together like a stick and a carrot to Widner and his fellow gangs.

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So far, Widner has followed whatever Krager demands to him without any question, but there comes a moment of doubt and regret through two different people, and one of them is Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a young single mother whom he happens to encounter when she and her three young daughters come to Krager’s place for their musical performance. Although she does not like Krager and his racist gangs much, Julie needs to earn money for herself as well as her daughters, so she and her daughters try their best, but their performance only gets interrupted by some rude gang member, who soon gets punched by Widner for being not so courteous to her and her daughters.

After that incident, Widner approaches to Julie, and Julie does not mind that because she appreciates what he did for her while also discerning his soft, sensitive side behind his tattoos and belligerent attitude. As spending more time together, she and Widner become closer to each other, and he naturally comes to consider seriously about living with her and her daughters.

Of course, it does not take much time for him to realize that his racist activities will jeopardize his relationship with Julie. She does not like at all to see him keep getting involved with Krager and other racist gangs, so she decides to walk away from him during one fateful night when Krager suddenly calls Widner for their latest criminal activity, which subsequently puts Widner into more doubt and regret than before.

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In the end, Widner comes to seek help from Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter), a black activist who saw the possibility of reform from Widner right from when he spotted Widner during the opening scene. When Widner gives a clandestine phone call to Jenkins, Jenkins is ready to help him, and Widner soon embarks on his reformation process, but, of course, Krager and his racist gangs are not so pleased to see their key member leaving the group. As reflected by a series of flash-forward scenes showing the long, painful tattoo removal process on Widner’s skin, racism and violence are something he cannot easily get away from, and he becomes more agitated and troubled than before while being more aware of what may happen to him or the people he cares about.

During the last act of the film, his situation becomes more tense as expected, and the screenplay by director/writer Guy Nattiv, who recently won an Oscar for his short film “Skin” (2018) (This short film is not related to the movie although they share a common theme between them), stumbles from time to time due to several ham-fisted moments including a shrill scene between Widner and Julie’s eldest daughter later in the story, but the movie keeps holding our attention via the palpable intensity generated from Bell’s committed acting. Bell, who has steadily advanced for last 19 years since his memorable breakout turn in “Billy Elliot” (2000), did a superlative job of immersing himself into the troubled psyche of his character, and it certainly deserves to be mentioned along with his recent solid supporting turn in “Rocketman” (2019). In case of the other main cast members of the film, they ably fill their respective supporting roles as much as required; while Danielle Macdonald holds her own place well beside Bell, Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga deftly convey their characters’ deplorable banality of evil, and Mike Colter is effectively cast as these characters’ counterpoint.

Considering that its subject is still a very sensitive matter in the American society, “Skin” is definitely worthwhile to watch although it is not entirely without flaws. Sure, I still think some of its parts do not work that well, but I admire its strong elements including the commendable acting from its several main cast members, and they are enough good reasons for recommendation in my inconsequential opinion.

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