Knives and Skin, despite the starkness of the title, has a surreal quality to it. Directed by Jennifer Reeder, the film floats together, without much care for how the scenes fit together as a whole product.
In a small, unnamed town in the Midwest, Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) stands outside her daughter Carolyn’s room with a kitchen knife. The scene is nearly pitch black, and it’s only possible to see Lisa because of the whites of her eyes as they open and close in the dim light. She is checking in on Carolyn, and after her daughter repeatedly doesn’t answer her, she uses the knife to pick the lock. She finds the room empty.
Carolyn (Raven Whitley) is, in fact, at the town’s make-out spot with her boyfriend Andy (Ty Olwin). When Carolyn backs off and says she wants to go home, Andy calls her a slut and leaves her there, sans glasses. Unable to see properly, Carolyn falls and, mysteriously, vanishes. Her disappearance wreaks havoc on her mother’s emotional state, but also affects the young women of the town. Specifically, a group of girls who probably wouldn’t be friends in any other story: cheerleader Laurel (Kayla Carter), musician Charlotte (Ireon Roach), and goth Joanna (Grace Smith).
The film uses taboo relationships, as well as sexuality in general, as a central theme. The families of the girls are supporting characters in what is made clear is their story, and everyone’s lives are full of grief, infidelity, lying, and depression. Joanna’s father (Tim Hopper) has lost his job and is having an affair with Laurel’s mother (Kate Arrington). Joanna’s mother (Audrey Francis), in turn, is clinically depressed. Joanna, as a consequence, sells her mother’s pills and used underwear in a bizarre and cash-only side business.
1980s music is used throughout the film, as Lisa leads an acapella group at school. All the girls are members, and so the audience is treated to haunting versions of The Go-Gos’ “Our Lips are Sealed” and Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises.” The score, by Nick Zinner, is a highlight of the film. The music flows well with the tension in scenes, which is particularly noticeable in the beginning half.
Knives and Skin as a whole, however, doesn’t flow as well as its music. Scenes feel divorced from one another, disconnected. The film’s plot makes sense, but is beset by subplot upon subplot as everyone comes to terms with their own affairs in the wake of Carolyn’s disappearance. As a result, some characters and plots can feel unfinished.
However, Reeder should be congratulated for creating a town that feels authentically diverse. Characters’ identities don’t feel shoehorned in or added for the sake of them. This film’s cast feels like the inhabitants of a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and also knows their secrets.
Knives and Skin’s dreamy cinematography (by Christopher Rejano) injects a sense of urgency to every action. Dark lighting forces the audience to really concentrate on what they’re looking at, which allows Rejano to have a little fun with it. Winter colors (blue and purple) are frequent, giving the film an eerie feel.
Knives and Skin doesn’t really have a central question. There is no looming mystery, ready to be solved. Yes, Carolyn is missing, but the lives and worries of the other characters almost begin to drown her out, until she’s introduced again. This film is like a spinning wheel, giving time to each girl and her family, including the one who isn’t even there.
Knives and Skin
dir. Jennifer Reeder
Now playing at Brattle Theatre through 12/11, 9:30 p.m.– The Late Show!