In the world of surreal and visually weird cinema, David Lynch is the master of the realm. Whether it be the revolutionary three seasons of his Washington state set mind trip show Twin Peaks, the abstract awesomeness of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or the most unusual science fiction film you could ever imagine in the form of Dune, Lynch always knows how to transport the viewer into a world that feels like the real world but as he fleshes out the characters and environments within, nothing is as it seems. Many have tried to follow the style over substance formula of Lynch to varying degrees of success, with most unable to grasp the true concept of what Lynch is able to provide to the viewer. Coming from that same cut of cloth, we are now getting Jennifer Reeder’s hypnotic and surreal teenage mystery film Knives and Skin. Can Reeder pull off a modern take on the Lynchian world of slightly off-kilter reality and offbeat everyday life, or will it come off as a mere pale disconnected copycat of a genre that takes a fine hand to nail down?
The question that is resting on everyone’s lips in this small town is “What happened to Carolyn Harper?” a sophomore at the local high school who disappears after being left behind at the lake. In the wake of Carolyn’s mysterious disappearance, a dark abyss widens among the inhabitants of Big River as the ripples of anxiety and mistrust begin to permeate through the high school halls and beyond. As the loneliness and darkness lurking beneath the veneer of everyday life gradually come to light, a collective awakening seems to overcome the town’s teenage girls—gathering in force until it can no longer be contained. What will come of this once quaint town of Big River once everything comes to fruition?
If anything I referred to in the opening paragraph regarding the David Lynch experience doesn’t sound appealing to you, then you should probably skip this movie. Knives and Skin, directed with a distinct vision and vibe by Jennifer Reeder, is a pure visual and evocative experience, one that can’t be placed into any specific genre or type of entertainment. A consistent narrative that is focused and tight is not something that this movie is rather concerned with keeping. Since most David Lynch movies play to the beat of their own drum, that is not really an issue as long as the viewer is constantly engaged with striking visuals, abstract performances and a sense of dreamlike wonder and despair. Knives and Skin primarily pulls this off throughout its 110 minute running time. The main narrative arc, the disappearance of Carolyn Harper, is immediately introduced to the audience within the first five minutes of the movie. After that, we are off to the races with a vignette of sequences that dance between reality and a surreal dreamscape that doesn’t follow a direct line of a cohesive story that one usually expects, wavering in hyper-sexuality that instantly brought to mind comparisons to Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, but aimed at and involving teenage girls. All of the performances in this movie range from an emotionless monotone and exceedingly calm demeanor all the way to pure high camp value, done with deliberate and effective timing throughout. One particular sequence truly shows the kind of viewing experience you are in for during this movie when Carolyn’s mom Lisa (Marika Engelhardt, turned up all the way to 11) catches the fragrance of her missing daughter in the sports car of the local dickhead football player, Andy (Ty Olwin), who we know from the opening is the person who left Carolyn in the darkness by the lake when she refused his advances. As she catches the scent, she just flings herself into the car, smelling around the car, the floor, the dashboard, all the way until she starts to smell his shirt. The fragrance is potent on that item, and she demands he take it off and give it to her, which he obliges. The coup de gras of the scene is when Lisa feels the most connection to Andy’s lips, where her daughter’s scent is strong, and the scene concludes with her more or less making out with Andy to feel the connection again with her daughter. This is only one example of the pure insanity that is on display in this movie, never once being played for laughs or just for the sake of being awkward.
The town of Big River is chock full of secrets, skeletons in the closets, mental, physical and sexual abuse and everything that can drive someone to madness and isolation, and director Jennifer Reeder knows how to pull the viewer in with great ease. Reeder is very adept at shot compositions and camerawork, displaying visually arresting scenes that are lush with vibrant neon colors, immense amounts of background objects and items to fill in the world these characters live in, with an assured hand in knowing how long each scene should play out. I never felt like any one sequence was overstaying its welcome or was abruptly cut short. Did I mention that this was also a musical? Laced within the movie is a handful of musical numbers that our characters break out into, most of them occurring within the three main teenage girls’ choir class which is taught by Carolyn’s mom, with song choices like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Birds Fly (Whispers to a Scream)”. Other musical interludes that are performed involve two girls lying in their respective beds singing “I Melt With You”, with slow overlap fades going between each of them. One particularly memorable sequence where the decomposing corpse of Carolyn Harper is belting out “Promises Promises” while it swaps back and forth between the various characters we have met across the movie is the most beautifully haunting and wonderful part of the sequences. I unabashedly loved every single song choice and accompanying scene that played out and firmly believe that they were the high point of the movie experience, with all being performed with the haunting resonance that Reeder was projecting throughout the film.
The one specific issue I ended up having with Knives and Skin is something that I might not take cadence with down the line, but during the movie it glared out to me. When we arrive during the final 15-20 minutes of the movie, and after a major discovery is made, the movie shifts from a series of beautiful and mysterious vignettes with no set storytelling structure to a more cohesive narrative that attempts to wrap up various dilemmas and plot points that have popped up for the three main teenage girl protagonists during the movie. I am curious why Reeder decided she needed to re-center the movie and focus heavily on resolving issues and closing loops that the story produced. This is not to say that the last 20 minutes is inferior to the rest of the movie, I’d say quite the opposite. However, a part of me wishes she had left the entire movie surreal, haunting and in a constant state of dreamlike madness. I might come to appreciate this shift later since it’s technically done very well and nothing actually feels false or noticeably forced in terms of finishing the story, but for the moment I would have preferred that this went full Lynch and just left the viewer befuddled by the end. However, maybe that’s her way of distinguishing herself and this work from being compared to Lynch’s work consistently, so perhaps it was for the best.
Knives and Skin is a movie best watched while under the influence of a mind-altering substance, and believe me that is not a knock against it. It is a beautifully melancholy experience, filled to the brim with gorgeous visual shot arrangements, wonderfully offbeat and genuine performances from the entire massive ensemble of actors, and a clear distinct vision that is never wavered from throughout its running time. This movie is not for everyone and I can imagine quite a few people walking out of the theater before it even ends, but if you have a taste for the surreal cinema of David Lynch and a general appreciation for how a movie can literally become a living piece of art, complete with a depth and complexity that can be reached when you pierce the veneer of its trippy overcoat, then Knives and Skin is definitely one film you shouldn’t miss. I am interested in what we will get next from director Jennifer Reeder.