December 9, 2019 Knives and Skin (Movie Review)
Available on VOD and Digital HD as of Friday, December 6th, 2019, Knives and Skin is a neon-soaked fever dream from Jennifer Reeder (A Million Miles Away 2014, Signature Move 2017) that takes surrealism to new heights.
Released via IFC Midnight, it all starts in the middle of a small suburban town in Illinois. Here the disappearance of Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley: How is this the World 2019, Hala 2019) triggers a ripple effect throughout the town, dispersing waves of fear and distrust – specifically for those closest to her. After being rejected by Carolyn, Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin: Personal Shopper series, APB series) who is the embodiment of an entitled male jock, leaves Carolyn stranded in the woods without her glasses. From there the town is shook after the news breaks, asking themselves whether she’s just missing or if the worst has transpired? Unfortunately for Carolyn, the film tends to gloss over her disappearance and focus more on its impact on the community, treating it as more of an afterthought instead of trying to actually solve the mystery at hand.
Her disappearance is merely used as a plot device to further the storyline for other characters, and even their subplots fall short. As the threads begin to unravel, an unlikely friendship forms between three girls that were deeply affected by her disappearance. Andy’s sister, Joanna Kitzmiller (Grace Smith: Dorm Therapy series), who sells drugs and her mother’s underwear to save money for college, Charlotte Kirtich (Ireon Roach: Chicago P.D. series, Princess Cyd 2017), a goth musician with an outlandish sense of style, and Laurel Darlington (Kayla Carter: APB series, I Hate LA series), a cheerleader and a closeted lesbian. The three become the most dynamic part of the film, bringing an air of enlightenment in the form of female empowerment and a sense of family.
Despite the many obvious idiosyncrasies of the townspeople, each subplot feels underdeveloped which takes away from the overall effect. The characters, more specifically the main trio, have a certain charm that entices viewers to want to care about the things happening to them. We’re drawn to Joanna’s eccentric home life with her unstable mother and her questionable extracurricular activities. To Charlotte and her many outlandish outfits, how she conducts herself as bold and otherworldly, yet is vulnerable around her unlikely crush on the football star that she tutors. To Laurel who’s struggling with her sexuality while dealing with her disgruntled family and her mother’s suspected infidelity.
The adults in the town are even stranger. Lynn Kitzmiller (Audrey Francis: Chicago Fire series, Empire series) is clearly disturbed and has conversations with the tiger on her shirt to deal with emotional distress. Aaron (Alex Moss: Chicago Med series, Work in Progress series), the hot new teacher conducts himself as a sophisticated yet chill educator but enjoys hitting on students and sending unsolicited dick pics in his spare time. Oh – and let’s not forget the school principal that enjoys buying used panties from minors.
All this in mind, it still seems to fall short of providing enough development to feel like a complete story. There’s no definitive way to connect the dots because the minute each storyline seems like it’s about to come to a head, the narrative shifts. Perhaps that was Reeder’s intent, to leave open-ended plotlines to evoke the notion to create your own interpretations or conclusions, however it does leave things feeling unfinished.
The film seems to favor sensation over substance. The film’s campy dysfunction wrapped in neon-coating is overwhelming in that becomes more of a distraction instead of a way to add emphasis. Instead of adding to the cinematic aesthetic, many of the choices seem forced. Between the random outbursts of song, over-dramatized acting and plot devices, minors secretly meeting in the bathroom to share secret messages and items hidden in their genitals, it’s a lot to unpack to where you have to question “is there a point to this?”
It’s all very Riverdale meets Twin Peaks with a splash of Euphoria, except it’s all very superficial. One of the more honest performances is from Marika Engelhardt (Patriot series, Easy series) who took on the role of Lisa Harper, Carolyn’s mother. While her downward spiral seems overdramatic, it’s raw and visceral, she’s the only constant reminder that this plot all began with a missing teen. She embodied the role of a mother distraught by tragedy, hysterical outbursts, smelling Andy’s shirt and neck because she “can smell her on him.” It helps bring some reality back to the storyline while everyone’s dealing with their internal messes, there’s still a grieving mother dealing with the disappearance of her child that started this roller coaster. It’s incredibly grounding.
Knives and Skin is more of a narrative on suburbia than a mystery. It’s a bright, coming of age film that disguises itself as a Thriller to add an air of suspense that essentially just isn’t well executed. It traded in actual story and character development for visual mindfucks that just didn’t cut it. It had the cinematic prowess but lacked the heart. That is why Cryptic Rock gives Knives and Skin a 2.5 out of 5.