Many who attended the screening of Knives and Skin at the Overlook Film Festival this past weekend probably needed a box of tissues after, because it is one of the most unique, emotionally provocative films you’ll see all year…
…Since you’re reading this on Killer Horror Critic, it should be known, Knives and Skin is NOT a horror film, despite its horror-y title. That being said, Knives and Skin is a powerful film that will move you to your core, with the sort of dreamy vibe that helped make works like Twin Peaks so memorable. Written/directed by Jennifer Reeder (Signature Move), Knives and Skin is a fantastical journey with teen noir elements which follows the lives of a rural, Midwest town’s citizens after the death of a teen girl named Carolyn (Raven Whitley).
Just a few seconds in, Reeder takes our hand and leads us into a strange fantasy of love, grief, and hope, opening with Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (brilliantly played by Marika Engelhardt), approaching her daughter’s room with a knife in her hand. Finding that she’s not there, she proceeds to try on her dress and dances amidst eerily vibrant, mystical colors which fill the room. The name of the game here is that the people in the world of Knives and Skin are strange, an honest portrayal of real life in that we are all strange, in one way or another. Everyone has that thing they do when no one is looking. But more to the point, we all behave differently when confronted with tragedy, and what we do never has as simple of a label as “normal”.
Knives and Skin presents various perspectives through a diverse cast of eccentric characters, from used-bra selling Joanna (Grace Smith) to quirky hater of social norms, Charlotte (Ireon Roach), and so many more. This is the sort of film where Joanna’s drug-addled mother, Lynn (Audrey Francis) sleeps on tinfoil covered pillows, or where Lisa breaks down and has an oddly erotic moment in which she hardcore sniffs the scent of Carolyn on Andy (Ty Olwin), the asshole jock who was the last person to see her. Everyone in this film is a unique individual, with their own unique life and firmly set personality.
Engelhardt is particularly phenomenal as Lisa, acting as the heart and soul of the film. A heavy theme of Knives and Skin is how death affects us all, and while most of the town just continues to move on with their lives, Lisa breaks down further and further, whether it’s sniffing Andy like it’s going out of style, or wearing Carolyn’s dress over a T-shirt while she teaches choir at school. We especially feel for Lisa because no one else in the film seems to care much. Charlotte, an ex-band mate of Carolyn’s, and everyone else in town barely seems to even acknowledge that she’s gone. Knives and Skin is an honest take on death and the way the deceased disappear from everyday life. As someone who recently lost someone myself, I can say that Reeder perfectly captures the odd way in which someone drifts further and further from our minds after they’re gone. Reeder exemplifies this by constantly having Carolyn’s body lying just out of sight of those nearby, who would notice her if they tried just a little harder. This film broke my heart in the most beautiful way.
Reeder’s Knives and Skin is something special, a poetic journey through the human soul. In one moment, Joanna and her classmates are given an assignment to write a poem in iambic pentameter (fourteen lines), about the various forms of love. It may seem like a small, inconsequential scene, but at a certain point, Knives and Skin moves past death and becomes about love and the different ways we experience it, and, though I haven’t counted, there are roughly around fourteen characters we’re following to some degree, so there’s that little nugget. The number of storylines can complicate things a bit, and leaves some character stories feeling underdeveloped, but all of them speak some sort of truth, and none come across as unnecessary.
What really sets Knives and Skin apart from the pack of tragic teen noir dramas is the mystical, dream-like quality of Reeder’s storytelling style. Christopher Rejano’s cinematography is utterly breathtaking, presenting each and every moment with a heightened reality, with scenes like Lisa making love, and everything around her suddenly becoming lit with a light that is otherworldly. Reeder touches on the beautiful concept that the deceased leave a bit of their energy in everything they touch. Carolyn’s glasses glow, as does the scar she leaves on Andy’s head. There is a Lynchian quality, both visually and conceptually, yet Reeder also sets herself apart from Lynch by focusing on the beauty of the strangeness in the world, instead of the ugliness. With a few more films like this, maybe us film geeks will have a new term, Reederian. Shut up if you think that’s dumb, you make up a term then.
Knives and Skin is a sad, uncomfortable, too real yet fantastical and sometimes invasive tragedy that is sure to touch the hearts of many. Reeder is baring her soul with this film, and that personal touch emanates from Knives and Skin like the gorgeous colors that fill every image. My one gripe is that this story isn’t fully satisfying, leaving many elements unresolved, but that also speaks to the themes inherent in Knives and Skin. Things die. Things are born. We forget, and life goes on.
By Matt Konopka