Jamie Bell’s tough performance carries this forthright, earnest, if limited drama, based on the true story of a far-right American skinhead called Bryon Widner and his attempts to leave a neo-Nazi white-power cult. This involved the agonising removal of his grotesque facial tattoos with their various Hitlerian symbols and fantasy nordic insignia. It’s a vivid metaphor for the denazification process.
The film is written and directed by Israeli-born film-maker Guy Nattiv (working from a TV documentary called Erasing Hate). He was an Oscar-winner this year for his short film, Skin – which has no relation to this feature, other than a shared thematic concern with racial conflict.
Bell plays Widner and Danielle Macdonald is excellent as Julie, the woman with three children with whom he falls in love and who encourages him to make the break with the creepy Nazis. Mike Colter plays Daryle Jenkins, the anti-fascist activist who works to “turn” extremists and helps to bring Widner in from the cold.
The drama involves a tricky balancing act. Widner has to be just enough of a Nazi bad guy so that we can appreciate his journey away from evil; but not so much of a Nazi that he stops being relatable. In fact, we never see him do anything purely horrible on his own. He is part of a brutal assault on a black teenager at a demo, which he appears instantly to regret, and an attack on a Muslim community centre whose horrendous effects he tries to minimise. Otherwise, the film presents him as the “good” neo-Nazi skinhead, disgusted by the brutal “bad” neo-Nazi skinheads.
It’s a curious spectacle, but when far-right footsoldiers want out, this might well be what happens. The visual impact of Widner without his tattoos is the point of the film: the image of humanity restored.