A Real-Life Neo-Nazi Redemption Story
The new film ‘Skin,’ playing at the Tribeca Film Festival, stars Jamie Bell as Bryon ‘Babs’ Widner, a real-life Ohio neo-Nazi who removed his tattoos and changed his ways.
Hate is easily grafted onto the bodies and souls of people in need, argues Skin. But expunging it—internally and externally—is a process filled with pain.
Premiering May 1 at the Tribeca Film Festival (ahead of its July 26 theatrical release), director Guy Nattiv’s film shares the title of his Academy Award-winning 2018 short, as well as that predecessor’s focus on American neo-Nazis. However, the true inspiration for Nattiv’s drama is the real-life story of Ohio white supremacist Bryon “Babs” Widner, a man who wears his intolerance on his face—literally. His countenance covered in permanent-ink drawings of scalpels, arrows, and other white-power-coded symbols and designs, he’s a walking billboard for fascist bigotry.
Skin doesn’t sugarcoat Bryon’s ugliness, introducing him marching through Columbus with his torch-bearing brethren, where they’re confronted by One People’s Project founder Daryle Lamont Jenkins (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter) and his African-American anti-fascist comrades. A riot quickly erupts, during which Bryon suffers a stab wound from a young kid and, in retaliation, beats the boy mercilessly in an alleyway, punctuating his assault by carving an “SS” insignia into his cheek. All in a day’s work for Bryon, who’s soon back enjoying business as usual: giving his flame April (Louisa Krause) a tattoo and then screwing her in a side room; downing beers like they’re water; and responding to a cop’s (Mary Stuart Masterson) interrogation by cockily pulling his pants down to reveal thigh tats that read “Snitches Get Stitches.”
In short, Bryon is the scum of the earth. Yet Skin isn’t content with just exploitatively wallowing in his backwoods racism; on the contrary, it’s a redemption story, one that begins—obliquely—with an opening image of Bryon sitting on a surgical table. Over the course of the ensuing two hours, Nattiv repeatedly returns to that medical locale to depict Bryon having his facial tattoos removed. It’s a procedure that requires years of work—which is too bad for Bryon, since he screams with every zap of the instruments used to slowly erase his hateful marks. And there are many, many zaps.
If Bryon and Daryle’s names sound familiar, that’s because they were two of the prominent figures featured on last year’s thoroughly ill-advised (and fortunately cancelled-before-it-aired) A&E reality series Generation KKK. Whereas that show cast them as partners in KKK-conversion-therapy duty, Skin illustrates the arduous path Bryon had to originally navigate to save himself. Such salvation begins with his chance encounter with Julie (Patti Cake$’s Danielle Macdonald), a mother of three whose young daughters perform at a “NordicFest” put on by Bryon’s Vinlanders sect leaders Fred “Hammer” Krager (Bill Camp), aka “Pa,” and his wife Shareen (Vera Farmiga), known as “Ma.” Julie’s youngest Iggy (Colbi Gannett) takes a liking to Bryon’s dog, Boss, and Bryon, in turn, takes a fancy to Julie, who cautiously allows a relationship to develop even though, after a traumatic experience with her first husband, she’s trying to keep her children away from the neo-Nazi life.
Nattiv allows details about Krager’s gang—its fascination with Norse god mumbo-jumbo; its deification of macho masculinity; the laughable phoniness of its “we don’t hate, we just want America for ourselves” ethos—to emerge from the action at hand. Better yet, his film underlines the way such outfits prey upon the weak and vulnerable. In an early scene, Krager entices young runaway Gavin (Russell Posner) to join the group by offering him a beer and the promise of food, shelter, and manly camaraderie—an incident followed by Bryon subsequently forcing the kid to admit that he joined simply because he was hungry. Not that Krager is the only predator here; Farmiga’s Shareen coddles her “sons” with sweetness and pseudo-sexual caresses, the better to rope them in and then subject them to her venom.
Skin contends that, for individuals like Gavin and Bryon, being a neo-Nazi isn’t just about race hate; it’s also about having a loyal and dependable family, as well as clothes on your back and a place to sleep. Bryon’s ensuing romance with Julie, which engenders an uneasy reaction from her abuse-scarred daughter Desi (Zoe Colletti), shows him that there are other clans from which you can get those things, and they don’t come with requirements that you spew animosity and commit murder. It’s a realization of life-altering proportions, albeit one that has problematic ramifications for Bryon, be it blowback from white-power brothers and sisters who view his departure as a sign of treason (and possible collusion with the Feds), or entrance into a mainstream society that’s reluctant to believe he’s changed given the tattoos covering his face.
Despite the fact that there’s little suspense about how things will turn out (the tattoo-removal cutaways are de facto giveaways), Nattiv’s film confidently situates itself in this downtrodden, seething-with-rage milieu. Danger is omnipresent, especially once Bryon tries to make a clean break and start anew. Arnaud Potier’s stark, immediate visuals and Dan Romer’s score—especially its use of occasional anxious string-plucking—enhance the dark, corrosive atmosphere. The film feels infected down to its core; a miasma of rage, prejudice, desperation and sinister manipulation.
More than its aesthetics, Skin casts its spell courtesy of its cast, with Farmiga proving the cagey yin to Camp’s bullying yang, her every sugary smile and comment laced with arsenic. They’re a repugnant pair contrasted by Macdonald, whose maternal protectiveness is as fierce as her love is upfront and genuine. Caught in the middle of these warring forces is Bryon, whom Bell brings to life as a mad dog trying to come to grips with, and adjust to, Julie’s kindness and the potential future it suggests is within reach. Letting his character’s sledgehammer belligerence slowly soften—a transition that has its share of confusion, panic, and agony—Bell evokes a potent sense of Bryon’s shifting moral compass even as his situation threatens to spiral out of control.
Reminiscent of Edward Norton’s work in the similar American History X, Bell first defines himself via his scary appearance, and then digs deeply into his protagonist’s knotty resentment, frustration, and longing. Akin to the medical technique that obliterates the physical remnants of Bryon’s past, it’s a raw performance that scrapes away at the monstrous surface to expose the scarred, and salvageable, human lurking within.