‘Knives and Skin’ a True Genre-defying Experience

by Nick Spacek on December 5, 2019

in Reviews

[Rating: Minor Rock Fist Up]

Director Jennifer Reeder‘s new film from IFC Midnight, Knives and Skin (premiering this Friday, December 6, at the Screenland Armour) was described by The AV Club’s Katie Rife as “a stylish and slyly feminist update on the Twin Peaks/Riverdale teen noir.” It’s not incorrect, but there’s so, so much going on over the course of the nearly two hours of this film that attempting to pigeonhole it into one particular genre seems absurdly reductive.

Knives and Skin follows the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance in a stylized version of a rural Midwest town that hovers just above reality, led by an inexperienced local sheriff. Unusual coping techniques develop among the traumatized small-town residents with each new secret revealed. The ripple of fear and suspicion destroys some relationships and strengthens others. The backdrop of trauma colors quintessential rituals—classrooms, dances, courtship, football games—in which the teenagers experience an accelerated loss of innocence while their parents are forced to confront adulthood failures. This mystical teen noir presents coming of age as a lifelong process and examines the profound impact of grief.”

After watching Knives and Skin, trying to summarize the plot in any sort of meaningful way reveals itself to be a task equally as difficult and frustrating as trying to figure out just what kind of movie Reeder’s film is. The director’s roots lay in short films, and Knives and Skin is more a series of interconnected tales than one holistic narrative. Within the film’s opening scenes, the viewer’s introduced to so many characters that it’s a blessing that each of them is so visually distinctive, as trying to keep track of names becomes a Herculean task.

The downside to this vast cast and a striking visual style is that Reeder’s film becomes less of a narrative, and far more of an experience. Much of the promotional material attempts to lay Knives and Skin out to be a Twin Peaks-style whodunnit, with the prominent use of “Have You Seen Carolyn Harper?” or “Carolyn is missing. Everyone else is lost.” on a couple of the posters leaning hard into “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” territory.

The thing is, much has been made of Knives and Skin‘s Lynchian aspects, but I was struck more by the fact that it has a very Italian vibe going on. Certain objects glow with importance. The lighting and color scheme is almost hyper-realistic, verging on neon. Characters such as Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) behave in almost animalistic ways, with Lisa’s reaction to Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) – the last person to see Carolyn alive after abandoning her on a gravel road – being to sniff him all over, declaring that she can smell her daughter on him.

The character of Carolyn (Raven Whitley) is revealed to be dead very early on, so it’s no spoiler to discuss that aspect, but the manner in which she behaves after death swings nearly into Swiss Army Man territory at times. One’s almost convinced that whatever happened to her was merely the impetus to bring back together characters who were pulling apart, and to pull apart characters who might’ve otherwise been coming together.

Knives and Skin is fascinating, because despite the fact that there’s so much going on, but ultimately very little actually happening in terms of plot development, almost any of the various subplots could’ve been excised into their own 15-minute short, with the loss and ultimate discovery of Carolyn serving as the wraparound for each story. Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), and her relationship with her mother, Lynn (Audrey Francis) – or lack thereof, and how that leads to her stealing Lynn’s underwear and medication and selling them teachers and administrators of her high school – is fascinating, in and of itself.

Ultimately, though, this is a story which succeeds because the women in Knives and Skin get to be more than “the pretty dead blonde girl” or sexual accessories for the men in the film. The relationships between all of the women in these interconnected stories are all really powerful, and at no time do they come across as being absurd or ridiculous. Because of the mystical feeling of the film, helped along by the aforementioned glowing objects and neon lighting, along with the Cliff Martinez-meets-Angelo Badalamenti score from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, watching Knives and Skin is akin to a dream within a dream, with a hint of being slightly high and mildly hallucinating.

Seriously: there are choral pop arrangements of New Order’s “Blue Monday” and Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The instant I heard the version of the Go-Gos’ “Our Lips Are Sealed,” I was pretty much in for whatever ride Reeder wanted to take me on. It’s confusing, and maybe it doesn’t all work – a party clown in a janitor’s uniform, done up like Pagliacci, performing oral sex on a pregnant woman is a little too on-the-nose for weird for weird’s sake – but the experience is one which has stuck with ever since I sat down and watched it.

Those looking for something more, and a definitive statement about the state of young women in high school might be disappointed, but going back to where we started – maybe Knives and Skin is less about plot or genre, and more about feeling our way through the movie, and coming out the other side with a sense of having experienced something with wonder and curiosity. If that’s the case, it’s certainly successful.

Nick is a self-described “rock star journalist,” which is strange, considering he’s married with two kids and three cats. This is just further proof that you can’t trust anyone online. In addition to his work for Scene-Stealers, Nick can be found bitching about music elsewhere on the Internet at his blog, Rock Star Journalist, and as Music Editor for The Pitch.

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