Men and women bearing torches chant “blood and soil” as they cross a bridge in Columbus, Ohio. One of the group’s loudest members is Bryon: head-shaved, his body cloaked in tattoos. The torch lights his face, which quickly turns from a smirk to something rabid. Clad head-to-toe in black, he leads the boot-march toward a line of helmeted police officers outfitted in riot gear—all save for one. That officer stands in front, patiently awaiting the arrival of the group. Rather than slow or stop him, the officer embraces Bryon before letting him forward—an act of recognition and acceptance.
In one of the first scenes from Skin, the new film from Oscar-winning director Guy Nattiv, racism and white supremacy are put on public display. Bryon’s group seems fringe—they meet in the woods for a “Nordic Fest” to guzzle beer, shoot guns, and listen to incoherent speeches—but their march across the bridge reveals they are willing, and able, to bring their ideas into the open. Nattiv manages to capture the absurdities of the group while not making them into caricatures—they are far too dangerous for that.
Nattiv’s story is based on the life of Bryon Widner, an infamous skinhead from Indiana who left his white power organization after 16 years—but not without a struggle. Widner is played with chilling power and authenticity by Jamie Bell, who punches, smacks, shatters, and shoots his way through Skin. Bryon revels in violence; it is both means and end. Although he is feared by many, those who decide to oppose him in the movement do so because their racist ideology has blurred them to reality on every level. They will take a punch, or a bullet, if it means proving their commitment to the cause.
Skin is a redemption story, and a good one at that. Any good redemption story needs to be elastic: the narrative arc has to stretch in both directions. Bryon begins the film a growling, cocky mess—but there’s a hint of humanity when a group of girls playing traditional folk songs are heckled at the festival. Bryon defends them, but it is more an act of pride than grace. He needs to affirm his control.
In time, Bryon becomes close with Julie (Danielle Macdonald), the girls’ mother—who has left the skinhead group. He’s polite when she’s around (or at least as much as he can be), but his group is keeping a close eye on his new relationship. The Vinlanders Social Club, as they are called, are run by Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp) and his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga). Hammer is the bullhorn of the organization, but Shareen seems to have the real control. She’s sensual and maternal in equal parts to Bryon and the young recruits, and Farmiga plays the paradox to an unsettling perfection.
This is how the group recruits and retains members: sex, beer, and family. It’s a twisted sense of family, but for kids like Bryon—picked up young, and practically raised by the Kragers—it’s the only family they have. Even though Bryon falls in love with Julie, that sense of family makes it difficult for him to leave the group. It’s a realistic turn in the story, but also a necessary one for the narrative of redemption. Much like the tattoos that form a second skin, the garbled ideologies of the group focus on bodily and familial metaphors (blood, soil, boots on ground, the feeling that land belongs to certain races).
Skin doesn’t thoroughly explicate the racist ideologies of the movement in the manner of American History X, but for good reason. In story and sense, American History X has a surreal pulse; Derek Vinyard is a larger-than-life figure, whether shirtless with his hands behind his head, or bruising down a prison basketball court. Bryon feels a bit more down to earth. He has to sneak his way around the Kragers, who follow him when he attempts to settle down with Julie and her daughters. Skin is more of a drama than a thriller, but Nattiv sustains an unsettling mood as Bryon and his new family attempt to flee the past.
The one man helping Bryon is Daryle (Mike Colter), a black protestor of white power organizations, who is known for turning skinheads. He deserves a bit more screen time, but Skin is ultimately Bryon’s story, and Jamie Bell’s portrayal is nearly electric. Bryon might be drifting from his racist past, but his body is stained with the dizzying array of supremacist tattoos. It’s a fitting image and metaphor within the film. The tattoos are both sacral and shameful. In the Godless world of the Vinlanders—a world in which violent skinheads have deluded themselves into thinking they are victims—these transformations of body are their perverse public liturgy. Skin shows just how painful penance can be when someone is so deeply marked.
Skin is in theaters and On Demand July 26, 2019.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Nick Ripatrazone
Nick Ripatrazone is the culture editor for Image.