There is a Heart
Bryon Widner (Jamie Bell) is a real-life, now transformed, neo-Nazi who found himself taken in by a makeshift family of supremacists when all else was lost. He became a beast who led the charge of violent protests and hateful speech toward anyone without his views. We sense that there’s a heart deep down and see it begin to emerge when he meets single-mother Julie (Danielle Macdonald). Bryon eventually ditches the supremacist Viking club to shack up with her. This doesn’t sit well with Bryon’s adoptive family and they use threats and violence in an attempt to bring him back. Director Guy Nattiv employs cutaways every now and then to Byron on a hospital bed, lasers shocking his skin to remove the profusion of tattoos on every inch of his body.
Bryon is on that path between a life of violence that he knows through and through and one that offers hope, redemption and a real chance at a proper life. That dynamic is cleverly employed by Nattiv, and molded by Bell’s performance in which he presents inner turmoil and pain just by a mere glance.
All of the performances of re excellent. Macdonald as Julie is more than a stereotype, her own life damaged by the past – something that she refuses to let happen again, for the sake of herself and her children. Vera Farmiga as Ma, Bryon’s mother figure is perfect. The question mark surrounding her true feelings linger throughout the film, though there’s no mistaking her ruthlessly deceptive nature.
There are those viewers that will scoff at the quickness in which Bryon turns. In reality, it took years and this is difficult to capture on film without rushing through narrative or skipping ahead five, ten or even fifteen years. This is a powerful, harrowing and deeply disturbing drama that excels with Bell at its fore. His performance is the kind that comes along too rarely.
This true story is handled with surprising balance – which means not allowing the racists an ounce of sympathy. While viewers are closely attuned to Bryon’s viewpoint from his first appearance at a hate rally, his perspective is not granted justification until he begins to break from his family-run hate group – experiencing consequences from his present and his past.
There are only a few scenes that show him directly challenging (or refusing to challenge) his ideologies outside of his ‘family’ and this avoids violence that could push Skin towards torture porn and/or humanization of the alt-right. Bell’s transformation is understated. As Julie, Macdonald is the film’s moral compass but keeps her idealism grounded in her situation’s economic reality.
This is Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s first film made in the United States.