Skin (2 stars)


EIFF 2019: Jamie Bell is compelling as a conflicted white nationalist in this simplistic take on a true-life tale

The opening moments of Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv's fourth feature, his first set in the US, contain an overhead shot of torch-carrying white nationalists colliding with black protestors. The binary ideas Skin sets up in these first minutes – white versus black, dark versus light, good versus evil – are Nattiv's way of telling the audience that his film will dig into these generalised perceptions.

One of these fanatics is Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell), a tattooist specialising in Nazi designs by day and a perpetrator of racist violence by night. He lives in rural Ohio with his adopted clan, led by patriarch Fred 'Hammer' Krager (Bill Camp) and den mother Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Early on, Skin sets Bryon apart from this dysfunctional group with two character traits: he loves his dog and he's good with kids. These redemptive qualities will be the catalyst for Bryon's salvation.

At a rally, Bryon meets Julie (Danielle Macdonald from Patti Cake$), who is trying to leave her white nationalist days behind her and raise her three daughters away from violence. Bryon's newfound affection for Julie's family leads him further away from his own brood. While Bell's performance as the conflicted Neo-Nazi is compelling, flash-forward glimpses of agonising laser tattoo removal do the heavy work of depicting Bryon's conversion. And therein lies Skin's problem: Nattiv leans so heavily on cosmetic change to illustrate his protagonist's metamorphosis that the transformation feels rushed. Skin relies, too, on the idea that Bryon's love for Julie is enough to spark his change of heart without much interrogation into why he loses his previous zeal for racism and violence.

Although based on a true story, Skin feels reductive in its messaging and narrative: that love is all white supremacists need to curb their racist ways. The family aspects of Nattiv's latest are by far the most fascinating, but what should be the crux of the film – Bryon's rejection of hate – is, at best, naively well-intentioned and, at worst, a failure to truly get to grips with the subject.

Screened on Thu 27 and Fri 28 Jun as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.