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Real-life horror: ‘Skin’ a gripping true story of white supremacist who leaves hate group

“Skin” is the scariest film of the year.

Jamie Bell in a scene from the film “Skin.” (Courtesy of A24)

It doesn’t need creatures from other worlds trying to kill the population or the undead creeping around in search of a brain snack to create terror. What makes “Skin” so frightening is that it is all based in reality. The evil depicted here roams the planet with such an unbridled hatred that it should keep everyone awake at night.

The film, based on a true story, looks at Bryon (Jamie Bell) who is a member of a white supremacist group. After years of being a good soldier, Bryon has had enough and decides he wants to escape to a new life. A big part of that decision has to do with his relationship with Julie (Danielle Macdonald) and her three daughters.

Wanting to leave and finding a way to escape the death grip the group has on him are very different things. There’s also the very obvious hindrance that Bryon wears his past on his face with a collection of tattoos documenting his crimes. He eventually realizes the only way to escape is with help from others.

Danielle Macdonald and Jamie Bell in the film “Skin.” (Courtesy of A24)

Writer-director Guy Nattiv takes an almost documentary approach to the presentation of this story. He knows that the tale is so compelling – as brought to life by two Oscar-worthy performances – that he didn’t need to do any more than let the story unfold in a very fluid manner. There’s a rawness to his way of making the film that is the perfect match for the kind of exposed-nerve story he’s telling.

This simplistic style works because of Bell and Vera Farmiga, who plays the group’s maternal figure, Shareen. Both actors don’t hold back in taking on roles that are so complex on an emotional level. Both have mastered playing the kind of psychology needed to survive in this violent and brutal world.

Bell gets to take the unsaturated darkness of his character and play against that as Bryon begins to long for what he sees as a more normal family life. Bryon’s ebbing and flowing emotions are displayed by Bell without a pause or hesitation. In the scene in which he meets the woman who sparks his desire to change, Bell first plays Bryon as a brutal thug who has no respect for life – even his own. Moments later, Bryon shows a compassion and warmth when dealing with Julie’s three young daughters.

The complexity of the performance is intriguing to watch as Bell struggles between the forces of good and evil. He does get a bit of help from the tattoos, which are a constant reminder that his dark past is not just hype but constantly present – like a weird form of a job résumé. Bell steps up with one of his best performances, as he is at times totally terrifying and then becomes simply sympathetic.

Just as convincing is the work by Farmiga. Her task is to make Shareen the kind of caring person who would be a lightning rod to the broke and disenfranchised who come to the group. Many are lacking the love and attention of a kind parent, and that’s the image she projects.

But underneath that caring exterior is a soul of pure evil. What makes the performances all the scarier is that unlike the tattoos Bell sports, Farmiga plays her character in such a way that you don’t recognize the evil she represents until she’s pulled you into her world. Farmiga has become one of the most consistently strong actors working today, and this performance is another example of her stunning skills.

Both Bell and Farmiga are the fuses that light this explosive story, which is haunting on so many levels. “Skin” would have been a smart and wound-exposing examination of a dark part of the world even if the tale had been completely fictional. Basing it on a true story ramps up “Skin” to also be a reminder that real monsters do exist and they can be living next door.

That’s enough to make “Skin” an unforgettable horror story.

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