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Review: ‘Skin’ never gets deeper than its white supremacist protagonists’ tattoos

Jamie Bell in the movie ‘Skin’
Jamie Bell in the movie “Skin.”
(A24)

Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv and his producer wife, Jaime Ray Newman, won an Academy Award earlier this year for their short film “Skin,” a fictional comeuppance about a white supremacist. Now comes the feature length “Skin,” also about a white supremacist, but derived from a true story of skinhead redemption.

The short was crassly played vengeance, and regrettably the feature — though boasting a stellar cast — similarly stumbles in its favoring of shallow intensity over psychological depth or coherence. A physically transformed Jamie Bell plays Bryon Widner, a hulking, shorn menace plastered with racist tattoos and devoted to the white-power indoctrinators (Bill Camp and Vera Farmiga) who took him in as a lost, abused kid. When he falls for Julie (Danielle Macdonald), a single mother with three daughters, he’s drawn to leave his violent life, with the help of a black activist (Mike Colter) who tracks hate groups, but his watchful criminal family won’t make it easy.

Bryon’s real experience is certainly incredible, but Nattiv’s in-your-face approach to every scene — literally so, since the frame is rarely anything but a sloppy, unimaginative close-up — strips this character study of believability, or any nuance or gathering power. You never get behind the ink to see what’s inside Widner’s head. It’s all indiscriminate agitation, liberally dosed with brutality (beatings, threats, killings) and snarly/dumb dialogue that does its actors no favors.

How do you botch Camp and Farmiga playing racist cult parents? Make them cartoon villains. Peppered throughout are fast-forward glimpses of Widner’s painstaking tattoo removal process, and it exemplifies Nattiv’s mindset: Dialed-up agony wins out over meaningful portraiture.

'Skin'
Rated: R, for disturbing violent content, pervasive language, some sexuality and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, July 26, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles
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