Knives and Skin, an oddly inflected new film from director Jennifer Reeder, is unlike much else I’ve seen. Sure, there are signposts. The overall vibe is sort of midwestern David Lynch, with highly theatrical color effects borrowed from Dario Argento and an atmosphere of spotlighted American malaise a la the photographer Gregory Crewsdon. But to enumerate those clear influences is to define the film on the terms of a succession of Great White Men who came before it, and that feels unfair to Reeder. She’s working to open up new territory; Knives and Skin is an explicitly feminist endeavor that’s more interested in upending its forebears than paying them homage.
Unlike Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Reeder’s story isn’t a murder mystery. It begins when a pretty blonde girl named Carolyn (Raven Whitley) dies in the woods outside a small town. We see how it happens — she’s abandoned there by a local jock, Andy (Ty Olwin) who takes her bright yellow glasses and leaves her alone after she resists his advances. (He hides the glasses in a locker at the school where, in one of the film’s several magical-realist moments, they glow quietly in the darkness.) But Knives and Skin isn’t so much about the facts of Carolyn’s death as it is the aftermath, and how her absence affects (or doesn’t) the town as a whole — especially Carolyn’s teenaged peers, who are finding their own paths to adulthood in a frankly hostile environment.
If the film has a protagonist, it must be Joanna Kitzmiller (Grace Smith), who fantasizes about attending out-of-state colleges when she’s not navigating a scholastic minefield that includes an inappropriately friendly English teacher and an administrator with a thing for women’s underwear, unwashed. But she’s joined in her general confusion and despair by friends including a pair of lesbian cheerleaders who smuggle tokens of their affection in secret places and a member of the marching band who scares the hell out of everyone by climbing onto the roof before announcing that he’s only up there because it gives him a view of the highway leading out of town.
The film’s style can be frustratingly mannered, but Reeder’s teenaged characters have some heart and soul. The adult characters, on the other hand, too often feel like constructs — narrative pillars bearing the weight of scattered musings on adulthood, loneliness and regret. Grace’s newly unemployed father, for instance, is literally a sad clown. (Tim Hopper does quite a bit with the role, but the character is a punch line.) Her restless, pill-popping mother (Audrey Francis) feels a little more real, at least until the big cat pictured on her oversized T-shirt starts talking to her. And then there’s poor Carolyn’s mom, who conducts the school choir and copes with her grief by deploying sensitive vocal arrangements of songs from her childhood — “Our Lips Are Sealed,” “Blue Monday” — for the girls to sing. The effect is lovely, but I can’t help but feel it’s been skunked by the long-running Hollywood practice of using slow, sad cover versions in the trailers for the most bombastic films it has to offer. (Nick Zinner’s airy, ambient score is fine, but adds to the generally soporific tone.)
You may find all that business hilarious and/or touching, rather than tedious. But for me Knives and Skin is most effective when it’s visualizing something new. I was struck by the way Reeder keeps returning to Carolyn, who is presumed dead in the woods, but whose corpse moves around — animated, it’s suggested, by the thoughts and actions of those who knew her. There’s an incredibly spooky shot where Grace’s mother, illuminated by car headlights, casts an eerie red shadow on the back wall of her garage. (DP Christopher Rejano does a lot with saturated colors, slow camera moves, and ample deployment of lens flares.) And the film deals very frankly (yet superficially) with a miscarriage and, in an especially haunting image, the subsequent cover-up. I also enjoyed the sexual banter between girls, which rang true in its general air of panicked defensiveness. Comparing experiences with the penis, one girl asks, “Have you touched it?” And the second girl boasts, “Of course. All the time.” It’s very funny. But the same scene goes farther, as Reeder highlights the ways young women are expected to be performative about sex. One of them smartly declines the labels of “slut” and “tease.” When the other girl asks her, “If you aren’t a cunty slut and you’re not a bitchy tease, then what are you?” And the first responds, with undertones of sadness, “I’m neither. I’m nothing. I’m nobody.”
I get why people respond to this kind of thing (it’s simultaneously wise and campy, and eminently quotable) but at the same time it feels overwritten — a prepared statement applied to the narrative rather than some kind of sentiment an actual human being might express on the spur of the moment. In interviews, Reeder cites Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece Jeanne Dielman as direct inspiration for a scene where Grace’s mother starts making a meatloaf before she heaves the ketchup-infused mix at her husband’s van. That piques my interest for sure — maybe Knives and Skin should have been a little less Lynch and a little more Akerman. It may be gloriously femme-centric (not to mention generous in racial representation), but Knives and Skin is a shaggy dog story. It exhibits none of the creative focus that makes Jeanne Dielman’s more than 200 minutes of dreary domesticity absolutely riveting, and it doesn’t dare to end on anything resembling a downer. Instead, it strives to provide a kind of comfort food for a sympathetic audience. That can be tasty enough. But I prefer the raw meat.