Jamie Bell gives a transformative performance in Guy Nattiv's Skin. He plays a skinhead who is covered in neo-Nazi ink, from his face to his entire body. While the performance is a knockout, the film is a mess. Can a great performance be enough to save a film? Yes and no, depending on your current appetite for a story about a violent racist seeking redemption on a road to reformation.
Bryon "Babs" Widner(Bell) is based upon a real person, whom we get to see in the film's end credits. He is the favorite adopted son of Hammer Krager (Bill Camp) and his wife "Mom" (Vera Farmiga), leaders of the Vinlanders. The club, as it is referred to, spends most of their time drinking, chanting racist manifestos and committing violent hate crimes. For a while, Bryon is all about it. He nearly kills a 14-year old African American boy in the film's opening scene. Then he meets Julie (Danielle Macdonald) and her three daughters. Julie is on her way out of the club and pulls Bryon away from his "family" and towards her and a better life.
Skin is compelling enough thanks to Bell's performance but too often it sidelines the most interesting aspects of this story. First and foremost is the story of Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter). Jenkins is an African American activist who tries to pull young men out of neo-Nazi gangs. He is a fascinating figure and yet the film uses him sparingly. He helps Bryon escape and starts a new life, even finding a donor to pay for tattoo removal so that Bryon can shed his past. Jenkins played a big role in Bryon's life yet the movie doesn't give much time to this relationship. The other thing the film fails to explore in depth is the systematic racism in America that makes these kinds of violent racists. The film shows a bit of how the Vinlanders recruit young homeless boys to be a part of their "club" but doesn't give this fascinating element a lot of time.
The larger problems with Skin come more from the depictions of violence and the two-dimensional characters. Nattiv never makes the scenes of hate-filled violence impactful enough. They are grizzly but don't have a deep emotional impact. The death of a dog gets far more emotional attention than the murdering of three immigrants. The result is the distasteful treatment of the victims of hate crimes and racism. This is a film that only wants to explore the redemption of one racist, not the consequences of his actions.
Skin lacks the depth to make it memorable despite the great lead performance from Bell. Its focus is misguided at best. The film raises important questions and interesting aspects of racism in America and never explores them.