KNIVES AND SKIN – Review by Alaxandra Heller-Nicholas

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American filmmaker and artist Jennifer Reeder’s most recent film Knives and Skin is the crowning achievement of a career that has shown a notable interest in the experiences of young women. Recently playing Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, Reeder’s career as both a celebrated visual artist and a filmmaker collide here with spectacular effect; Knives and Skin is not just visually captivating, but also marked by an emotional intelligence and dark humor that renders it one of the year’s most unique cinema experiences.

From the outset, it’s worth acknowledging that discussing Knives and Skin without using that now-often lazily deployed descriptor ‘Lynchian’ is virtually impossible, as demonstrated by the range of largely positive reviews the film has now received. And yes, in terms of Twin Peaks especially, it would be somewhat disingenuous to not mention Reeder’s conscious reworking of Mark Frost and David Lynch’s famous tale of a small town whose residence undergo dramatic transformations after the sudden death of a pretty local blonde high school student.

Shifting the tale from Frost and Lynch’s small town in Washington State to Middle River in the Midwest, Knives and Skin begins with a date gone wrong as teen Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) resists the aggressive sexual advances of her boyfriend. He angrily drives off, abandoning her, and she fails to return home. Unlike Twin Peaks, however, this is no murder mystery; it becomes apparent almost instantly what has happened to Carolyn. This is not the same ‘town ripped apart by grief at the death of a golden girl’ trope, but rather Carolyn’s death acts as a catalyst that triggers a range of changes, revelations and transformations amongst those who knew her.

Knives and Skin is perhaps best understood as post Twin Peaks; this is a world where girls going missing in small towns is business as usual (a school teacher even casually asks his class “What’s the name of your missing girl?”, the screenplay elegantly communicating the ubiquity of the trope). Outside its basic premise, some Badalamenti-esque musical motifs, and an experimental approach to small town Americana as a site of surrealist world-building, Twin Peaks and Knives and Skin diverge as much as they overlap.

This is a film about being trapped in a small town, with all the stagnancy and suffocation that experience can bring, especially to young people. From its queer Black cheerleaders to adulterous sad-faced clown, Reeder’s vision is determined to move away from the regional ‘white trash’ representation of small town America (also the subject of work earlier in her career) and brings a kind of organic surrealism to her representation that is both profound, memorable and thrillingly entertaining.

But the real magic of Knives and Skin is how it creates a sensory world as much as a narrative one. A sequence where an angry mother’s hands are shown in close up making what looks like burger meat before she furiously throws it at her husband’s van is typically evocative, and it’s hard not to feel the meaty slush tingle grotesquely through our own fingers as we watch her knead the desiccated flesh on screen.

Beautifully filmed by cinematographer Christopher Rejano with an ethereal, haunting quality, the spirit of Technicolor is strong in Knives and Skin, where dreamy textures are juxtaposed sharply against the day-to-day ‘realism’ of home and school. But even these scenes are driven by an edging of formal experimentation that reveals yet again Reeder’s original approach to her material; a scene where a group of school girls practice in the school choir makes a clever use of subtitles as the girls whisper to each other, their voices unheard but words visible on the screen. Much of what they say is notable for being metaphorically ‘unspeakable’; discretely sharing their fears and desires as they whisper, unheard, Reeder allows them a formal space to give voice to feelings they find socially difficult to express more overtly. As much as its striking visuals and knowing, playful reimaging (and at times, perhaps even subtle critique) of Twin Peaks, Knives and Skin is first and foremost a movie that is unrelentingly focused on the myriad ways its ensemble cast of young women find their voices, both literally and figuratively.

Some of the film’s most emotionally powerful and simply beautiful moments centre around the choir’s acapella renditions of a range of 1980s pop hits, from Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun to New Order’s Blue Monday. The delivery of the latter’s lyrics ““Tell me how do I feel? Tell me now, how should I feel?” reverberate with an emotional intensity that speaks to the heart of Knives and Skin; young women finding voices, seeking answers, and finding their way through the darkness.

Knives and Skin plays the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal which runs 11 July – 1 August. More information at fantasiafestival.com

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She has written for publications including Senses of Cinema, Little White Lies, Overland, The Monthly, 4:3 Film, Meanjin, The Big Issue and Diabolique Magazine, and has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema. She is currently co-editing a book of essays on Elaine May and writing a book on the history of women in the horror genre.