You can’t judge a man’s soul by his skin.
But sometimes, it offers some pretty strong hints.
Bryon Widner’s body is a book, its grammar the heiroglypics of tattoos. A bloody razor decorates a cheek. An upward arrow points to his forehead. Flames and fangs, skulls and spiderwebs scrawl across the skin. Sometimes words do, too: “Blood and honor.” “Snitches get stitches.” All speak to Bryon’s priorities, and many point to his carefully crafted identity: He’s a racist, pure and simple. Byron’s a tough, bloody-knuckled Skinhead who lives to break noses, bash skulls and help drag America back into some imagined, racially pure past.
Bryon—“Babs” to his friends—belongs to a group called the Vinlanders Social Club. He’s the sort of brutal enforcer whom Hitler would’ve loved. The Vinlanders’ leader, Fred Krager, thinks of Babs as a son, and with reason: He took Bryon in when he was just an angry young kid and gave him food, shelter and a purpose. Now, Babs lives for the Vinlanders. Every inch of ink on his face says as much. Every mark serves almost like a cattle brand, telling the world who he is and what he’s capable of.
But then, during a white-power political rally, he meets Julie.
The rally is meant to launch Fred’s candidacy for political office. Julie’s three girls, bedecked in old-fashioned dresses, are the entertainment: After Fred makes his speech, the girls—one as young as 5 or 6—get up on stage and start singing old Norse folk songs.
But white-power rallies aren’t necessarily the greatest places for genteel family entertainment, and the audience soon grows restless. One rowdy makes fun of the girls and throws a half-filled beercan at one. Bryon, who’s taken a shine to Julie and her daughters, coldcocks the troublemaker with a microphone stand, then chokes him out.
It’s the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
As Bryon walks Julie and her daughters back to their car, Julie tells him this is the last show they’ll ever do for a white-supremacy rally. “I don’t want my kids to be around this,” she tells him. “We’re just here for the paycheck.”
But she likes Bryon. And he likes her. And as their relationship grows stronger, he begins to see his Vinlander brothers and sisters in a different light.
“I like it when you’re a part of us,” Julie tells him. And Bryon likes it, too. But he knows that to be a part of Julie’s family, he’ll have to tell his other one goodbye.
And they won’t make that easy. It’s as plain as the skin on his face.
Change is hard. And it’s especially hard when your past is literally written all over your face. But Bryon is determined to make that change for Julie and her girls no matter the cost. And, as we see, the cost is quite high.
He winds up seeking help from Daryle Lamont Jenkins, a black activist. Daryle’s work is twofold. First, he outs white supremacists—documenting on video who they are and what they do, then posting those videos online. But more critically, he also encourages these racists to let go of their hatred and move in a better direction: “I take human garbage and turn it into human beings,” Daryle quotes his father (who was a drug counselor), saying that that’s what he’s trying to do, too. By videotaping, he helps them “see the error of their ways. Then I leave a crack in the door.”
Daryle eventually gives Bryon a powerful (if painful) gift: The chance to remove his facial tattoos.
Just as Daryle shows Bryon unearned grace, so does Julie. She believes that a good man lurks beneath all that ink, and she gives Bryon the opportunity to prove he’s changed. But her grace has limits. Her first priority is clearly her daughters, and she will protect them fiercely and passionately without counting the cost.
Some of Bryon’s tattoos seem to be Christian—a cross on one bicep, for instance. But the driving spiritual influence of the Vinlanders Social Club is actually Norse paganism. They shout salutations to the old gods, and the club’s matriarch, Shareen (whom Bryon simply calls “Ma”), has an image of Frea, the Norse goddess of love and death, hanging from her rearview mirror. She gives it to someone she’s grooming to join the club. (Someone later gets a tattoo of Frea on her leg.)
The Vinlanders burn down a mosque, and its members direct several crude comments and slurs at Muslims. We see the words “In God We Trust” in the backdrop of a courthouse-based wedding. A man in a devil outfit is seen in the background of a Halloween party. We see a statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus elsewhere.
After giving a Vinlander woman a tattoo on her back (we see her bare back as she lies on a bench), Bryon has raucus sex with her. We see them engaged in frenetic movements (though without overt nudity) as he presses her body into a sweat-covered pane of glass. In a later scene, she tries to reach into and then strip off Bryon’s pants, but he’s not interested and throws her (almost literally) out of his apartment.
Bryon has sex with Julie, too. We see them in bed together and obviously engaged in intercourse. His bare backside is visible. They talk dirty to each other, with Bryon engaging in some bold, explicit, sadomasochistic discussion that serves as foreplay. (Bryon and Julie eventually marry and, sometime afterward, conceive a son.)
When Bryon’s arrested and brought in for questioning, he strips off his pants and underwear in front of the female detective, showing her the “Snitches get Stitches” tattoo enblazoned on his thighs. He covers his genitals with his hands, but we see everything else. After a shower, Bryon sits naked on a toilet seat as a young man stares at him and his tattoos.
Fred, the Vinlanders leader whom Bryon calls “Pa,” grooms an older teen to become part of the “social club.” The kid is with his friends underneath a bridge when Fred calls him over. The teen threatens Fred if he turns out to be a “perv.” “I say death to all pervs,” Fred counters, and he means it. Speaking of which …
The Vinlanders embrace violence as a means to force change—so much so that one of its members is nicknamed “Slayer.” In the opening scene, we see Bryon and his fellow white supremacists challenge a group of racially-mixed counter-protesters. Several people are beaten brutally, and we hear that “at least” 19 people were hospitalized after the riot. When one black teen takes off down the street, Bryon and a couple of his lackeys follow. They drag him off a dumpster, stab him in the back and cover him with fist blows and kicks to the gut and head. Then Bryon takes out a knife and carves “SS” into the kid’s cheek. (We see the wound both in the moment and in a photo later on.)
In some ways, this scene proves to be just a warm-up. We see a couple of the Vinlanders victims—men who’ve obviously been beaten—tied up in a car and (through their gags) pleading for their lives before they’re stabbed to death with a screwdriver. (Later, we see the car they’re sitting in ablaze.) That screwdriver later tastes blood in someone’s leg during a furious fight sequence (fists and feet and chokeholds make their impact felt, too—here and elsewhere).
Someone’s shot in the head (and we see the blood pool around the dead body), while someone else is practically left for dead. A skinhead gets shot in the back and apparently killed. A character, lying helpless in the hospital, has his oxygen turned off for a time, causing the guy to gasp desperately for breath. People are knocked down and out via various implements, and one man is rendered nearly unconscious via chokehold. (Mucus sputters out of the victim’s nose and across his beard as he struggles.) A dog is killed and strung up as a warning. Bryon and his new family are attacked by his old one: Bullets thud into the home they’re staying at, perforating its walls and sending the kids into the bathroom. (No one gets hurt.)
In a dream, Bryon finds himself in a hospital bed, lying helpless, as the teen whom he disfigured pours gas on him and lights a match. We see Bryon on fire, screaming.
Threats are made. People push each other around. We hear that Dez, one of Julie’s daughters, was attacked by Julie’s old boyfriend. Bryon, Julie and loads of other people attend a Halloween party in grotesque and bloody costumes. Dogs are roped into a dog fight. People cut their hands, pour the resultant blood into a horn and drink it. We hear about a stillborn baby.
Before Bryon gets the opportunity to have his tattoos professionally removed, he tries to burn them off with lye. (The only thing it does is blister the skin and cause a huge amount of pain.) But even the legit tattoo-removal process looks incredibly painful. Lasers seem to draw or break up the ink in Bryon’s skin—causing the dermis to blister and almost boil as Bryon groans in obvious pain. The full movie is intercut periodically with these painful scenes, which often leave Bryon’s skin scarred and discolored in the short term.
Nearly 200 f-words join about 30 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “crap,” “d–n,” “h—,” “c–ks–ker,” “f-g” “n—er” and “p—y.” God’s name is misused at least six times, once with the word “d–n,” and Jesus’ name is abused twice. We see a couple of crude hand gestures.
Many characters drink beer throughout the film (and occasionally lob beer cans at each other, too). Once, we see Byron and his previous girlfriend fall-down drunk and still pouring liquor, literally, down each other’s throats.
They might be stoned, too, as we see several folks smoke marijuana. Ma offers a joint to Julie’s daughter Dez, which she takes and smokes—haltingly and wheezingly at first, but with increasing gusto. Many characters smoke cigarettes, too. Ma swigs alcohol from her ever-present flask.
In a movie predicated on a white supremacist group, we can’t be too surprised that we see loads of really bigoted attitudes and interactions.
In his opening speech, Fred says, “I don’t hate the chinks, the n—ers, the Muslims or the dykes,” he says to laughter. He just doesn’t want them on “American soil.” Bryon and others are adorned with racist tattoos. Julie, whose father used to be a KKK leader, has a swastika tattoo herself—something that she says makes her want to throw up every time she sees it.
Bryon vomits all over a bathroom mirror. Bryon and Julie take Julie’s kids on a dangerous “surfing” expedition: A couch is tied to the bumper of a truck, the kids sit on the couch and Bryon drives off, letting the couch-sitting children swing and skid behind (while laughing and squealing with delight).
“People change, Cheryl!” Julie hollers at her landlady when she takes exception to Bryon’s presence.
But do they? Can they? Dig beneath the (ahem) skin, and that’s what Skin’s all about.
Based on the real life (and the 25 surgeries) of Bryon Widner, Skin gives us a character who desperately wants to change but wonders whether he can. “What if I take all this stuff off and I’m still a piece of s—?” he asks Daryle Jenkins, who’s trying to help him start a new life.
Bryon’s difficult journey illustrates an important reality: Change is hard. But Skin offers an inspirational, even spiritual message: It’s possible. With grace and forgiveness, it’s possible.
But while the movie’s heart may ultimately be good, its flesh is still incredibly problematic.
If you skipped by the language section of this review, let me reiterate: nearly 200 f-words. The other content sections above aren’t much better, filled as they are with sex and nudity and violence and a whole bunch of racism. Skin’s messages of hope and redemption are submerged in vats of problematic ink—and unlike Bryon’s tattoos, these problems can’t be removed.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.