Skin is the riveting true story of Bryon Widner, a violent white supremacist who was covered, head to toe, in appalling racist tattoos. A disaffected youth, Widner was targeted by a couple in the white power movement and forged into a loyal, brutal soldier for the cause. The film is his story of redemption, and the terrifying repercussions he faced when leaving the Vinlanders Social Club. British actor Jamie Bell, who's had a brilliant career since his boyhood debut in Billy Elliot, is unrecognizable as Bryon Widner. Skin is difficult to watch, but a pertinent and cautionary tale for these divisive modern times.
Skin begins with the Vinlanders Social Club marching through the streets spewing hateful rhetoric. In short order, the violent gang clashes with protestors in an all-out melee. Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) targets a young black teenager. Later that night, after drinking and fornicating into a stupor, he's arrested for his horrific crime. Widner is unapologetic and refuses to cooperate with police. He's bailed out of prison by the Vinlanders leader, Fred Krager (Bill Camp), who takes him home to "Ma" (Vera Farmiga).
The Krager compound was the headquarters of the gang. Fred and his followers would sweep the Ohio and Pennsylvania streets for homeless, at-risk teens. The Vinlanders provided food, comfort, and an indoctrination to white power ideology, under the tender care of Ma. She shaved their heads, kissed them tenderly, and started the path to hatred. Bryon Widner rose through their ranks, but became smitten by a single mother, Julie Price (Danielle Macdonald), and her three daughters. Raised in the KKK, she sang with her children at racist rallies; but had rejected any deeper involvement. Widner must choose between two families. His love for Julie and her girls opened his eyes against racism, but he simply could not walk away from the Vinlanders.
Skin intercuts the plot with shots of Bryon Widner having his tattoos removed through laser surgery. The process is excruciatingly painful. Widner's tattoos covered his body, even his crotch and knuckles had white power symbols. Director/writer Guy Nattiv uses these scenes to renounce Widner's hatred. Every time he progresses to humanity, you see Jamie Bell screaming in agony as a tattoo is burned away. The path to redemption is difficult. Skin peels away hatred.
The film is filled with disturbing imagery and language, but the psychological manipulation fascinates most. The Kragers preyed on children and twisted their minds. A visceral early scene has Widner hazing a new recruit. Why did the boy get in the Kragers' van? Why was he there? His telling response, he was hungry. The promise of a warm meal and a safe place to sleep was the easy lure. These despicable recruitment tactics shed light on how the vulnerable were ensnared into racism. Promotion in the Vinlanders Social Club came through violent acts. They used kindness as the path to savagery.
Jamie Bell delivers his career best performance here. His turn as Bryon Widner is gut-wrenching to see. What begins as purely physical turns to deep introspection and regret. Bell uses every acting tool to craft sublime character work. His relationship with Australian actress Danielle Macdonald is the catalyst for change. Julie represented a wholesome family life that he desperately wanted. She juxtaposed his sinister upbringing by the Kragers. Jamie Bell embodies versatility with this film. To think, he's currently in theaters playing Bernie Taupin, Elton John's Jewish songwriting partner. I can't imagine two more disparate roles.
Skin draws comparisons to American History X. They have similar themes and are both well acted. Bryon Widner's story was initially told in the documentary, Erasing Hate. Skin updates the story of redemption. It serves as a warning to the resurgence of violent, white power groups in the United States. As I write this review, FBI Director Christopher Wray has issued stark testimony to congress. The vast majority of domestic terror incidents are linked to white supremacists. Skin will be available on demand through DirecTV Cinema and released theatrically by A24 on June 26th.