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Movie Review: Ghosts and feminist underdogs have their surrealist revenge in “KNIVES AND SKIN”

Tuesday, December 10, 2019 | Review

By SHAWN MACOMBER

Starring Marika Engelhardt, Audrey Francis and Tim Hopper
Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder
IFC Midnight

You wake up in your teenage bedroom to an a cappella rendition of an ’80s song you can’t quite place until the chorus beckons you out of slumber. You’re surrounded by the totems of innocence and angst you believed had been lost to time—some mercifully so, but most not. You’re bathed in strange predawn hues, and there’s a mailbox you’ve never seen before planted in the middle of the goth-punk detritus. The flag is up. Turns out writer/director Jennifer Reeder has sent you an invitation to another dimension, sealed with a kiss that left behind a thick classic imprint of congealed blood and hyper-rich Manic Panic lipstick. All you have to do to accept is press Play on KNIVES AND SKIN.

Before you do, it’s important you have some idea of what you’ll be getting yourself into. And that is a lush, beguiling, off-kilter, slow-burning, fully immersive cinematic experience that plays by its own rules and moves at its own speed. No way Reeder could avoid the TWIN PEAKS references, even if she wanted to—though her pacing and approach to narrative sometimes feel more closely aligned to David Lynch’s later, surrealist, rabbit-hole films like MULHOLLAND DR. and INLAND EMPIRE. That’s what happens when you center a very weird, dreamlike film around a teenage girl who everyone mistook for a normie but was in fact more Walt Whitman than she appeared—I am large, I contain multitudes—and then examine how her death/disappearance reverberates through the torn fabric and oddball residents of a meticulously groomed suburban community.

There are other shades and touchstones at play here, including virtually every film focusing on that special kind of cruelty high school spawns, along with the aforementioned ’80s music—New Order, Cyndi Lauper, The Go-Gos—that is reimagined and smartly delivered in one emotional gut-punch after another. And Reeder’s extensive experience directing shorts appears to have provided her the tools to patch all of those together in an intriguing, heartfelt, sometimes extremely unsettling way.

Now, those who have pondered the above and determined, Yes, absolutely, gorgeous visuals drenched in oversaturated tones, elegiac ruminations and an unconventional, reality-refracting approach to storytelling are definitely my bag, and I will be accepting Ms. Reeder’s invitation posthaste, probably do not need or want any sort of plot explication. Smart, that. Still, to give the wonderful ensemble cast its due respect, it’s worth explicating something of an outline for what is aptly billed as a “mystical teen noir.”

It goes a little something like this: Brandishing a very large knife, Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) goes to check on her teenage daughter. She is not there, so Mother takes the opportunity to try on one of the girl’s shimmering dresses. Meanwhile, on a deserted road in the countryside, said daughter, Carolyn (Raven Whitley), is in full marching band regalia rendezvousing with Andy (Ty Olwin), into whose forehead she carves a “C” with a thumbnail—“So I can find you in the dark if we get separated”—before a brief makeout session. When Ty’s aggressiveness gets ahead of his understanding of basic consent, Carolyn attempts to create space, but is instead attacked, bloodied, and left in the darkness sans glasses.

It is here she will remain until the very end of the film, somewhere between life and death, as her absence lights many fuses back in town, exploding the status quo of teens and adults alike. Many of these detonations will be harrowing, blowing facades off substantial rot. Others will result in righteous, cleansing fires that unify and empower a trio of iconoclastic underdogs (Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Grace Smith) to embrace a robust, fiery feminism that is ultimately liberating.

Do any of these characters understand that Carolyn’s purgatorial peace and soul are at stake in how their tribulations play out? It isn’t really clear, even as Carolyn’s body appears to work to avoid a discovery that might extinguish the fires too soon. In truth, Reeder may be more comfortable with the ambiguities than a substantial portion of her potential audience. KNIVES AND SKIN is an indulgent film, particularly in the running time and its myriad ambitions, but this seems essential to the execution of her vision. What isn’t in dispute is that Reeder has conjured a truly outré, fantastical world in order to say something real and profound about our own.