Knives and Skin
Feminist thriller goes deep
Knives and Skin (2019)
Directed by Jennifer Reeder
Cast: Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Ireon Roach, Kayla Carter, Grace Smith
Comparisons of Jennifer Reeder’s ’80s-flavored coming-of-age thriller Knives and Skin to Lynchian cult classic “Twin Peaks”—as well as to the work of auteurs like Gregg Araki and Yorgos Lanthimos—are well earned. Drawing on an essential narrative and stylistic conventions similar to those in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”—the seismic impact that a beguiling teenage girl’s disappearance has on her tiny town and dreamlike visuals featuring slow dissolves, fades and close-ups—Knives and Skin transcends a simple additive formula comprised of any of the numerous influences that Reeder wears proudly on her sleeve. But the thing is … Reeder’s biggest influence is herself.
Maximalism and melodrama are Reeder’s métier, and excerpts of dialogue and artsy action included in this film originated with the director’s earlier short films, especially recent work like “A Million Miles Away,” “Blood Below the Skin” and “Crystal Lake.” From Reeder’s early transgressive social satire as “White Trash Girl” to this, her hot pink-washed original feature film debut—Reeder directed Fawzia Mizra’s 2017 indie Pakistani/
For unabashed cinephiles and dedicated genre fans, Knives and Skin’s substantial runtime—nearly two hours, or 112 minutes, to be precise—won’t present an obstacle but be forewarned: Each of those moments is generously endowed by its creator with a labyrinthine web of human connection among the teens, their parents and their teachers—from a budding schoolgirl romance to the end of a doomed affair, from hallway bullying to myriad clandestine transactions and transgressions. An impressive, diverse cast takes on the uncanny characters in Reeder’s magical realist-cum-Boschian landscape, which itself inhabits a nameless small town in the Midwest.
After a cryptic, Medea-tinged opening, Knives and Skin joins weird, lovely band nerd Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) in a reluctant outdoor makeout session with jerky jock Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin). Carolyn seems more concerned about keeping her new eyeglasses and plumed band shako safe than she is motivated by more than a modicum of attraction to her date. After Carolyn scratches her initial into Andy’s forehead, she firmly rejects his clumsy advances toward third base. A livid Andy stalks off, leaving poor Carolyn to fumble, fall and find herself alone, bleeding in the grass and unconscious (or dead).
Other than the unhappy couple, a triptych of youthful female characters stand out among Reeder’s menagerie. The stories of three teens—eccentric artist Charlotte Kurtich (Ireon Roach), haughty cheerleader Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter) and deadpan hustler and toxic bro Andy’s sister Joanna Kitzmiller (Grace Smith)—anchor the film’s smart, satirical feminist dialogue amid a multitude of tragicomic storylines that don’t discriminate on the basis on youth or wisdom.
While it’s not technically a character, Knives and Skin’s eerie synth-driven soundtrack was dreamed up by Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs). In literal concert with Zinner’s original OST, a cappella renditions of ’80s hits are performed ably by the cast. Sung sadly, lustily, dreamily or madly, both together and alone, everything from The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” to The Icicle Works’ “Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)” offers lyrical reflection on the characters’ fears, desires and traumas.
But the adults aren’t just background here and their delusions, fetishes and foibles provide a fertile breeding ground for some standout characters. The missing girl’s mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt, “Chicago Fire”), who also coaches the girls’ school chorus, brings an intensity and vulnerability to the grieving process rarely seen outside Shakespearean drama. Laurel’s mom Renee (Kate Arrington, “Ray Donovan”) is a note-perfect dissatisfied wife and narcissistic mother endowed with a walk-in closet full of skeletons and a massive baby bump. Joanna’s mom Lynn (Audrey Francis, “Empire”) and her dad Dan (Tim Hopper, “Chicago Fire”) both excel as largely absent, wildly flawed role models who somehow still invoke sympathy.
Reeder pays meticulous attention to framing, visual narrative elements and story arc detail—feminist icon-branded T-shirts, lovers passing notes over a bathroom stall, a dress fitting that doubles as a detante, a T-shirt’s airbrushed lion that issues an admonition to its owner (yes, you read that right)—and employs cinematography that conjures interior color and chiaroscuro that gives even the most delectably overvivid giallo efforts (think Suspiria, Blood and Black Lace, The New York Ripper) a run for their ticket money. Devote a couple hours’ worth of dedicated attention to Knives and Skin, and you’ll never see making meatloaf, giving book reports or recycling tinfoil quite the same way again.