When Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri came out, many people were split over Sam Rockwell’s character, a racist cop who turns over a new leaf. While it was hard to find fault in Rockwell’s performance, which won him an Academy Award, audiences had polar opposite views of his character. Some felt that he ultimately redeemed himself, demonstrating how even the worst of us have the power to change. Others argued that Rockwell’s character was beyond redemption and that the movie problematically glamorized him as a hero. Skin is another provocative drama that’s bound to passionately divide audiences. The film’s central figure is easy to despise, which makes it so conflicting when we see him exemplify moments of personal growth and humanity. Knowing what he’s done in the past, can we forgive him? Should we forgive him?
Director Guy Nattiv and producer Jaime Ray Newman previously brought us the Oscar-winning live-action short Skin, although this feature is mostly unconnected. Rather, the film chronicles the true story of Bryon Widner, a skinhead whose body is littered with tattoos. When Bryon paints his face like a skeleton for Halloween, he ironically looks less threatening with the makeup on. Jamie Bell has been turning in physically demanding performances ever since his film debut in Billy Elliot. He’s nothing short of transcendent here as Bryon, who slowly has his tattoos removed as he wrestles with the idea of leaving his white power group.
While the film doesn’t shy away from the hateful and straight-up evil acts Bryon took part in, his life choices are given some context when we see the environment he’s grown up in. Bill Camp is chillingly effective as the sociopathic leader of the neo-Nazi group, who runs his so-called “family” with the iron fist of a corrupt prison guard. Vera Farmiga’s character is completely different, and yet exactly the same. She lures young people into the group with a calm, maternal tone of voice, but her true colors are far more sinister. While the nature vs nurture argument doesn’t excuse Bryon, it does provide insight into how he became this way and why white supremacy shockingly isn’t a thing of the past.
Bryon is finally motivated to cut ties with his “family” upon meeting Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), a mother of three who’s also trying to leave the neo-Nazi world behind. Watching Bryon warmly interact with Julie and her daughters, we briefly forget about his skinhead background. Of course, it’s never long until we remember all the people he’s hurt, leaving us torn down the middle. On one hand, this is a person who dedicated a good portion of his life to spreading hate. On the other hand, he sees the error of his ways and attempts to turn his life around, which is more than can be said about some white supremacists. One person who believes Bryon is worthy of another chance is Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Mike Colter), a black activist. Others aren’t too eager to help Bryon reform, making it easier for his “family” to worm their way back into his life.
Skin is a timely film in more ways than one. It certainly deserves to be analyzed in the wake of the Unite the Right rally that plagued Charlottesville. Perhaps even more significantly, the film is coming out at a time where a lot of people are being judged and reprimanded for their past actions. Do we reward those who own up to their mistakes or is forgiveness just the first step towards repeating the same cycle? In an age where everyone takes their beliefs to extremes, we all like to see the world in black and white. While Skin doesn’t leave us with any easy answers, it does remind us that the world is actually full of grey. It’s by no means a film for everyone, but those with an open mind will walk about wiser.