‘Skin’ goes beneath the surface

There are some subjects that most of us would rather not look at closely. The American Skinhead/white supremacist/neo-Nazi movement is one of these for me.

‘Skin’ goes beneath the surface  (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Skin’ goes beneath the surface
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are some subjects that most of us would rather not look at closely. The American Skinhead/white supremacist/neo-Nazi movement is one of these for me. When the demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia shouted antisemitic slogans in the infamous 2017 rally where a counter-protester was killed, my impulse was to turn off the news.
So I was dreading seeing Skin, a movie by Israeli director Guy Nattiv, a fact-based story about Bryon Widner, a tattooed skinhead who underwent 25 operations to have his tattoos removed after he left the movement. But Skin is engrossing and moving and features a brilliant performance by Jamie Bell in the lead role. Although going in, you know that Widner broke with his racist past, it’s suspenseful watching how he gets himself out of this environment.
Nattiv also directed an Oscar-winning short film with the same title about racism in the US, but it’s the full-length Skin that tells Widner’s harrowing story. Widner was basically adopted by a family that ran a skinhead gang after his own family abandoned him. Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp, who was so good as a detective in the HBO drama, The Night Of) and Shareen (Vera Farmiga of Bates Motel) are his surrogate parents, alternately warm and scarily twisted and threatening. Illuminating this relationship is one of the movie’s strengths, in that it shows how these groups exploit the young and vulnerable who have fallen through the cracks of the social welfare system. And the group is hardcore, mounting protests similar to those in Charlottesville and attacking a Muslim community center.
But Widner has been taught this violent, intolerant way of life rather than embracing it through his own free will, and he begins to question these values when he meets Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a young single mother with three young daughters. She is not a political person and he first sees her when her daughters, who have a singing group, perform at a skinhead gathering. She is appalled by the violence she sees there and decides to keep her children away from such groups in the future. But he is already smitten by her and the love he sees in her family. At first, he thinks he can be in her life and remain part of his skinhead group, but eventually he comes to feel torn as he is pulled toward Julie and her natural gentleness.
The more he gets to know her, the more he feels the need to break away. Facing legal trouble for some of the violent acts he has committed while part of the group, he meets Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter, whom The Good Wife fans will remember fondly as Lemond Bishop), an African-American activist who encourages him to make a decisive break with his past.
But Fred and Shareen are not graceful losers and they threaten Widner, Julie and their daughters. As they go on the run to try to find a place where they can live safely, Widner decides he must remove the most visible symbols of his connection to the skinheads, his tattoos, a grueling process but one which ultimately brings him redemption.
Jamie Bell is utterly unrecognizable as the sweet kid who wants to dance from Billy Elliot or even as the determined young man from Defiance. Heavy and with a shaved head, he is captivating in a role where he could so easily have been off-putting. This is the kind of performance that actors win Oscars for and it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he gets a nomination. All the actors give strong performances and Danielle Macdonald, who recently appeared in the Netflix drama Unbelievable, proves again that she is on her way to becoming a star. She is so appealing and believable in her key role and she and Bell have real chemistry.
It would have been nice to see how Widner’s life has turned out since he left the skinheads and to get more of a sense of how he looks back on his turbulent transformation. But Skin is still a surprisingly entertaining look at the humanity behind one hater.