A Ferociously Feminist Horror-Musical Targeting Toxic Men
Indie filmmaker Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin” provides a thrillingly unique spin on the teen movie.
Teen movies are a dime a dozen, and most are too dully formulaic to leave even a temporary—much less a lasting—mark. In that regard, Knives and Skin is a welcome reprieve from its genre-mates’ sameness, borrowing and blending elements from assorted storied predecessors to create something mysterious, hypnotic and malevolent. A strange and sinister coming-of-age tale set to haunting a cappella musical numbers, it’s an idiosyncratic indie that, for a significant stretch, cuts to the bone.
Whereas Greener Grass channeled David Lynch’s suburban surrealism for amusing absurdism, Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin (in theaters Dec. 6) takes a darker Twin Peaks-via-Donnie Darko approach to its material, which concerns the fallout from the disappearance of high school marching band member Carolyn (Raven Whitley). Opening images of Carolyn’s mom Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) looking for Carolyn in her darkly-lit home while wielding a knife set an immediate mood of horror-movie menace. Nonetheless, even though it turns out that Carolyn isn’t in her bedroom, there’s no question about what’s happened to her, since a subsequent scene depicts the girl arriving at the edge of a lake with varsity football stud Andy (Ty Olwin). When she rebuffs his aggressive sexual advances, he shoves her to the ground and drives off—not realizing, at least initially, that he’s left her for dead.
It takes mere minutes for Knives and Skin to establish this narrative foundation, as well as its expressionistic offbeat aesthetic spirit. Glittery dresses and homemade flyers, ballerina music boxes, quirky goth clothes, over-the-top makeup and radiant pink dresses abound, gliding across a screen that’s often color-coded in rosy neon hues, embellished with lens flares, and filled with overlapping objects and dreamy transitional fades. Be it in glaring school hallways, nighttime parking lots, or bedrooms illuminated by decorative string lights, Reeder coats her action in a hypnotic haze that’s equally indebted to Riverdale, Sixteen Candles, and John Waters. It’s a drowsy descent into a middle-class milieu where familiar elements have been warped into something bizarre, unreal, and dangerous.
As if to exacerbate that impression, Knives and Skin is pockmarked by a cappella renditions of ’80s hits like “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Promises, Promises,” “I Melt With You” and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” many of which are sung by Carolyn’s female classmates in a chorus overseen by Lisa. These tunes’ lyrics speak directly to the disaffection, alienation and loneliness of its multiple protagonists, who in the wake of Carolyn’s apparent tragedy have been left to find a way forward. To say that there’s no proper plot to Reeder’s film would be, on the one hand, accurate. Yet as it progresses down its eccentric path, what emerges is a multi-strand portrait of youth in search of acceptance, love, peace and self—things that are often achieved by turning their backs on the toxic men in their lives.
The first of those repugnant male figures is Andy, who’s not only harmed Carolyn, but also continues to pressure his cheerleader-girlfriend Laurel (Kayla Carter) into touching his you-know-what. Laurel’s home life isn’t much better, since her pregnant mom Renee (Kate Arrington) is cheating on her sheriff husband (James Meredith Vincent) with Andy’s dad Dan (Tim Hopper), a low-rent party clown. Dan feels bad about this extramarital deception, but it’s clearly the byproduct of his own unhappy union with depressed shut-in wife Lynn (Audrey Francis), who sleeps on tinfoil-covered pillows, loves to give people manicures, and wears a shirt with a giant lion face that, in one outlandish scene, gives her a pep talk about the difficult times ahead, and the need to “wise up, and then rise up.”
Lynn and Dan’s other kid, Joanna (Grace Smith), is a friend of Carolyn’s who’s dealing with a sexist substitute teacher, and the film pairs Joanna and Laurel with a third girl—Charlotte (Ireon Roach), a singer and dressmaker being pursued by the football player she tutors—to form a trio of teenage girls in search of self-definition in the face of bad male behavior. For Laurel, that involves accepting her feelings for a fellow female classmate with whom she shares notes and trinkets (which they’ve hidden in their vaginas) over bathroom stall walls. Nonetheless, Knives and Skin isn’t merely about gay identity and actualization; in its raft of intertwined character vignettes, it paints a larger picture of women of all stripes trying to understand themselves and the social/romantic/political world around them.
Reeder’s film is a bonkers feminist fantasia that glides by on its own out-there wavelength, shouting out to cinematic forefathers with entrancing free-associative wistfulness. Aiding that cause is cinematography by Christopher Rejano, and a score by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, that (like Peter Strickland’s upcoming In Fabric) feel indebted to the giallos of Dario Argento and Mario Bava. All in all, it’s a heady stylistic statement, which is why it’s disappointing to discover that its aura of desire, confusion and fear isn’t enough to sustain the proceedings through to their conclusion. Despite capable, deliberately glassy-eyed performances from its cast, Knives and Skin doesn’t feature any characters that resonate as empathetic, relatable human beings; rather, they’re more like symbolic vessels for various ideas. One understands what they’re going through without ever feeling much about their predicaments, making them involving primarily on an abstract level.
Nonetheless, there’s much to admire about Reeder’s hybridized riff on teen-drama conventions. As with a particularly memorable scene in which Lynn crushes food ingredients into a gross pile of slop and then hurls it at a van’s rear door, the writer/director mushes and mashes disparate influences together until they form a striking new concoction. Knives and Skin hums with rage, ennui, despondence and—in the grief-stricken plight of Lisa, compelled to wear Carolyn’s dresses over her clothes, and to hit on Andy as a means of both finding and becoming her missing daughter—deranged sorrow. Its disjointed, episodic nature may prevent it from congealing into a cohesive whole, but that messiness turns out to be its biggest strength, allowing it to swish and swirl about in a uniquely uncanny stew of passions and pain.