The leader of the “Keep America White” Nordic Social Club can curse and bully with the best of them. But it’s when he (Bill Camp) dials it down to a whisper that the real menace kicks in.
“I still own you,” he growls at one of his disciples, “and every inch of ink on you!”
Skinheads, their culture, common backgrounds, penchant for violence and passion for symbolic tattoos are the characters and the setting for “Skin,” Guy Nattiv’s searing and seriously unsettling tale of the white supremacists who crawled out from under their rocks when the White House changed hands.
It’s a world of racist rallies, blood rituals and blood spilled, marches for “Blood and Soil!” and the brawls that descend into riots when counter-protestors show up. Hazing and tests of testosterone, Lynyrd Skynyrd covers and rough, unemotional sex, racist rhetoric and the raging mindset that fosters.
For the old folks at home, these are fascists, “very good people,” to some. They’re the “fa” in “AntiFa,” which a whole lot of older Fox News addicts know to fear, but don’t care to find out the crazed “fa” bigots are that they’re protesting against.
Jamie Bell once again transforms himself, this time into Byron “Babbs” Widener, an Ohio skinhead deep into the culture, taken in when he had no home or “family,” now covered in the tattoos of the hardest of the hard core.
The film is framed within shots of Byron going through the excruciating pain of having those tattoos, which were imprinted just as painfully, removed. So we know he took a shot at getting out, and very quickly the narrative sets up his reason.
A rage-aholic with no impulse control, chief lieutenant to “Dad” (Camp) and Mom (Vera Farmiga), can Babbs be saved by the love of a good woman? That would be Julie, played by Danielle Macdonald (“Patti Cake$”), who grew up in “the life,” but with three daughters already, at least talks the talk.
“I don’t want my kids to be around this.”
Tough and tender Babbs sucks her back in. Will she be enough to lure him out?
New recruits are enticed with the promise that if they “join the real deal” they can “do some REAL damage.”
Not just pulling racist online trolling, wearing racist T-shirts and the like. Pulling guys out of melees to beat half to death. Mosque burnings, the works.
Nattiv allows time for just one scene where the ineffectual, threatening cops (Mary Stuart Masterson) try and “turn” Babbs, and plenty more time for the equally long shot approach of Daryle Jenkins (Mike Colter of TV’s “Luke Cage”). He runs the One People’s Project, and he’s had enough confrontations to figure out that meeting violence with violence isn’t the smart play.
“You’ve got a heart! You ain’t like them, Babbs! Love you, Babbs!”
Yeah, yelling that in the middle of a march or perp walk is just what a skinhead wants to hear. Colter makes it seem sincere, even if the character is left under-developed.
Camp is a total buy-in as the “Nordic” chief of this “like REAL Vikings” club/cult. He’s smoothest in the “intervention” they stage when they fear Babbs is drifting away.
Farmiga dazzles as the seductive master saleswoman, the bait for wayward white punks looking for direction, for a family.
“You can call me ‘Mom.”
Macdonald carries herself like the catch she knows she is, Big Girl Magic incarnate.
But it is Bell who makes the movie, belligerent, coiled fury from the tip of his bald head to the toes he bounces on as he stomps into the frame, threatening one and all, righteous in his racist wrath.
The “true story” angle and the foreshadowing — those framework scenes where we see Byron try to erase the emblems of his past — rob “Skin” of its sense of surprise.
The power of Bell’s performance, the horror of the rhetoric and mindless mindset render “surprise” a moot point. We know they’re coming. We just have to decide what to do about them.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality, and brief drug use
Cast: Jamie Bell, Danielle Macdonald, Vera Farmiga, Bill Camp, Daniel Henshall
Credits: Written and directed by Guy Nattiv. An A24 release.
Running time: 2:00