Since he made a dynamite screen debut at 14 in Billy Elliot as a boy from a harsh British mining town who finds himself through the unlikely route of ballet, Jamie Bell has been crushing it as an actor in projects as diverse as Undertow, The Adventures of Tintin, Snowpiercer and Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. This year, after winning raves as lyricist Bernie Taupin in the Elton John biopic Rocketman, Bell, 33, takes a dramatic change of pace in Skin and delivers an awards-buzzed tour de force.
Based on the story of Bryon Widner, an American white supremacist and tattoo artist who inks his own skin as a message of hate, Skin — the first American feature from Israeli writer-director Guy Nattiv—makes extraordinary demands on Bell. With the 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia violence still thundering in the public consciousness, the movie is a tragically topical story for our time. But what sort of an investment should Bell and the filmmakers be asking audiences to make in Widner?
It turns out, the same one he makes in himself. Widner gained public attention in an 2011 documentary, Erasing Hate, which told of his break from the neo-Nazi subculture that helped form him. In Skin, Nattiv shows us the nearly two years of physical torment Widner endured having the tattoos that covered his face and body surgically removed. It’s hard to feel sorry for a racist who once burned down mosques and abused persons of color with impunity. But is redemption possible? One person who thinks so is Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter), a black, anti-Fascist organizer who thinks he can turn Widner from human garbage to a human being.
There are times when Skin can seem naïve and manipulative, almost in the same breath, which takes the film perhaps too long to get its bearings. But Bell is the binding force that locks us into Widner’s tumultuous journey. Details of his earlier life are sketched in as he flees his own abusive, addictive parents to find a surrogate family in the big-talking Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp, hellishly good) and his partner Shareen (a superb Vera Farmiga), who likes their disciples to call her “mom” — even those she seems intent on screwing. Nattiv shows how susceptible youth without roots can be to the toxic imitation of love offered by this Viking skinhead group.
For Widner, salvation comes in his meeting with a fellow rebel from the Krager tribe. She’s Julie , a single mother of three girls — Desiree (Zoe Colletti), Sierra (Kyle Rogers) and little Iggy (Colbi Gannett). As played by a sensational Danielle Macdonald (Patti Cake$, Dumplin’) with a tough core of intelligence and resilience, Julie is the first glimmer of hope for Widner. It’s Darlyle who arranges for Widner to turn government witness by testifying against the Kragers and in return receiving a new identity for himself, Julie and their family.
The threat of violence stalks the final third of the movie as the neo-Nazis seek revenge or recapitulation. But Bell makes sure that the drama stays rooted in character. The film cuts frequently to the surgeries that erase the tattoos. But the question remains: Are all Widner’s scars physical? What of the invisible skin Widner can’t leave behind? In communion with the camera, Bell gives us a portrait of a man still grappling with those issues. And it’s the power of that portrait that makes Skin a movie you can’t get out of your head.