KNIVES AND SKIN: A Surreal Mystery That’s More Missed Opportunity

A refreshingly diverse yet hollow take on suburban malaise can’t help but remind audiences of more original and coherent influences

In the latest from visual artist Jennifer Reeder, the denizens of an unnamed suburb descend into vibrant, neon-soaked misery after local teen Carolyn Harper goes missing. Caught between grief and madness, everyone processes things differently — from new high school romances, to further indulgences in far more adult vices, to stunning synchronized acapella renditions of ‘80s ballads sung miles apart. As the search for Carolyn intensifies, the myriad secrets of her friends and family reach a converging breaking point.

Knives and Skin is a dreamlike, bitingly cynical view of suburban trauma, which for much of its runtime plays out like a modern-day riff on David Lynch and Paul Thomas Anderson. Reeder also employs a far less patriarchal and heteronormative take on her subject matter, placing queer and characters of color front and center for much of the film’s runtime, refreshingly illustrating a more modern, wide-ranging view of surreal suburbia. In most cases, these qualities would be an immediate pathway into this reviewer’s good graces — but what makes Knives and Skin stand out from the shadow of its influences is in frustratingly short supply.

Many films can combine the macabre and the mundane to be called Lynchian — but what drew me to Knives and Skin was its refreshingly female-centric take on a well-tread subject. Too often in these kinds of films — and admittedly even in David Lynch’s own work — do female voices take a backseat to male desires. While Lynch gives Blue Velvet’s Sandy and Dorothy increasing complexity as the film’s core mystery deepens, they still remain trapped within protagonist Jeffrey’s male gaze — creating personifications of innocence lost and the dark depravity hiding beneath the suburban surface, the two dynamics Jeffrey’s caught between thematically. Even Twin Peaks’ Laura Palmer took until Fire Walk With Me to fully come into her own as one of Lynch’s best female characters — until that point, she remained a frustrating abstraction, wholly defined by her victimhood and the image of the All-American sweetheart she would later shatter in the secrets uncovered by her death.

Knives and Skin, in contrast, begins in a familiar place as Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet with Carolyn’s disappearance — but the overall impact of her death is one that isn’t illustrated by a single male character, but a diverse ensemble cast of female and queer voices. Topics broached include the frustrating paradox that exists between purity and slut-shaming in high school, the toxic sense of entitlement that can pervade most high school relationships, creepy-as-hell student-teacher dynamics, and the debilitating pressure to hide any aspects of oneself that breaks heteronormativity. Reeder tackles these myriad topics in a blunt, straightforward fashion that is wholly heightened by the genre’s surrealistic qualities — with outlandish, borderline horror only augmenting what malaise already exists in these uncomfortably normal situations.

In telling a wide-ranging ensemble story, though, much of Knives and Skin feels disconnected from each other, with its most successful scenes playing more as isolated shots in the dark than parts of a cohesive whole. The bulk of the film’s storylines play out separate from each other — from Carolyn’s mother’s confrontations with the perpetually-wounded jock who left Carolyn for dead, to the impending pregnancy that increases family tensions between the Sheriff investigating Carolyn’s disappearance and his daughter, one of Carolyn’s schoolmates. On their own, these could be interesting storylines, and Reeder does lightly illustrate how Carolyn’s disappearance exacerbates these disparate plot threads. Overall, though, many of these suburban dramas feel too disconnected from each other, as if they were thematic boxes to be checked rather than earnestly explored.

It doesn’t help that the surface-level examination that many of these storylines stay at feels almost hampered by the film’s biggest influences. From disappearing bodies to glowing accessories to even the extended cross-faded choral covers I loved, many of Knives and Skin’s most enjoyably bizarre moments feel like afterthoughts that patch up or distract from weaker storytelling decisions rather than organic sequences of outlandishness that lend greater depth to the film’s subject matter. They feel like weird moments for weirdness’ sake rather than opportunities to illuminate — and as a whole prevent what makes Knives and Skin original from escaping the shadow of better films.

Knives and Skin is a film that deserves praise for bringing a much-needed female-driven take on suburban dystopia, and the film’s more inspired moments showcase many of Reeder’s visual talents. However, the film does tackle much of its subject matter in a way that’s far too cursory and uninspired than it deserves.

Knives and Skin is now available in theaters and on VOD courtesy of IFC Midnight.

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