Knives and Skin (2019)

Knives and Skin (2019) at Fantasia and FrightFest

A woman clutching a large kitchen knife walks through a home bathed in giallo-esque neon pinks, reds and blues, and knocks at a bedroom door. “Carolyn, are you in there?”, she asks. “Are you still not talking to me?” She then picks the lock with the knife’s blade and enters. There is nobody there – but the woman, who is in fact Carolyn’s mother Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt), tries on a sequined dress belonging to her daughter. Meanwhile, still dressed in her majorette’s costume, 15-year-old Carolyn (Raven Whitley) is at the reservoir on the edge of Big River, about to lose her virginity to randy jock Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin). “I’m such a nobody,” Carolyn tells him, “Say my name”, before cutting his forehead with her fingernail and declaring, “Now I can find you in the dark – if we get separated.” She changes her mind about having sex, and angry, entitled Andy, who still is still holding onto Carolyn’s new glasses (“My mum would kill me if they broke”, she had commented), drives off, abandoning her there. It is the last time that anybody sees Carolyn alive.

This diptych of sequences opening Knives and Skin is also programmatic of its themes and stylisations. For the film is full of lost girls, sexual negotiations, and fears of isolation, erasure and oblivion, while its rural Midwest setting is constantly defamiliarised by eccentric behaviours and mannered lighting (especially pinks), flushing this strange adolescent world with a quirky, feminised hyperrealism. It is a kaleidoscopic examination of a particularly American coming of age, told in fragmentary episodes and vignettes that circle around, without always focusing on, Carolyn’s absence. 

In an early scene we see Carolyn’s classmates practising a slow a cappella version of all-female group The Go-Go’s Our Lips Are Sealed (1981) for their girls’ choir, conducted by a teary Lisa. It is a song whose title and lyrics (like Lisa’s earlier question  “Are you still not talking to me?”) speak of the conspiratorial omertà that often surrounds (female) experience within patriarchy. The unspoken, the secretive, the ineffable – these are key themes in a film which is after all a mystery. With its waterside dead girl, its surreal small-town soap operatics and Nick Zinner’s moody synth tones, Knives and Skin is overt in its evocation of David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks. Yet its little, local mysteries – what happened to Carolyn? why was her mother carrying a knife in the house (something she is still doing when Big River’s sheriff Doug Darlington, played by James Vincent Meredith, visits)? – soon give way to bigger, more existential questions which everyone in the community (and in the cinema) must at some point confront: about our identity and its embodiment, about our connections of kinship and friendship, about sex and love, about memory and mortality.

More songs from the early Eighties (New Order’s Blue Monday, Naked Eyes’ Promises Promises, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want To Have Fun) will follow, sometimes sung by the school choir, or sometimes distributed, in Magnolia-like montage, between different characters (including the dead and undiscovered Carolyn). It is as though the old mix-tapes, in out-moded cassette format, that Andy’s father Dan (Tim Hooper) finds hidden in the garage also provide the free-associative structure of the film itself, as it leaps from scene to scene and character to character, remixing Big River’s dramas – and its denizens’ nuanced emotions – in eclectically catchy form. The old songs here, like the tchotchkes and personal objects that different characters exchange, offer a backbone of nostalgia, as the community of Big River – and the film along with them – struggle to find continuity and hope in emptiness, invisibility and loss.   

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder, Knives and Skin is an ensemble piece, paying special attention to a loose circle of female characters: Lisa on her confused, self-abasing journey to find her daughter; Andy’s sister Joana (Grace Smith), as close to a centering focus as the film has; Joana’s mentally ill mother Lynn (Audrey Francis) and hedonistic grandmother Miriam (Marilyn Dodds Frank); Joana’s school friends with their own relationship anxieties; and Sheriff Darlington’s heavily pregnant wife Renee (Kate Arrington), who is having an affair with Joana’s father Dan (Tim Hopper). The various pressures and oppressions which all these women face offer a mosaic portrait, in microcosm, of America’s gendered inequalities – like Sam Levinson’s Assassination Nation (2018), only replacing that film’s vigilante ultraviolence with a shimmering magical realism. So this is a feminist work, with an intersectional interest in its non-white and non-hetero characters. The results are a luminous, dreamy panorama of a patriarchal nation still coming to terms with itself as it sings the same old tunes (in new arrangements) and longs for even the possibility of change or escape.  

© Anton Bitel