DIRECTOR: JENNIFER REEDER | SCREENPLAY: JENNIFER REEDER | STARRING: RAVEN WHITLEY, TY OLWIN, MARIKA ENGELHARDT
A pretty little majorette stands with her lover against the night sky. He wants her to remove her glasses, but she won’t. She inscribes her mark upon his head before she falls down dead. For once, we can spoil you without spoiling you because the plot is immaterial. The remainder of writer-director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin dances around what has killed the girl, or rather why.
Knives appears in the mould of, or rather desperately echoes, Twin Peaks. Unlike Lynch’s masterpiece, it’s less a story with a beginning, middle and end (in whatever order), more a series of snapshots as the community spend their time picking each other apart in typical arthouse suburban America while the little rustles of the disappearance fracture the world around them. The girl’s body lies in the bulrushes while her classmates face her empty chair. Gem hues and snatches of occasionally poetry add to the Lynchian effect, but the idiosyncrasies of Agent Cooper et al flips here into occasional outright surrealism where the CGI budget pops for images announcing the characters’ paranoia and guilt. In a gloriously bizarre sequence, a t-shirt logo outdoes its own dime-store iconicity. It really shouldn’t work, but manages because the acting is pitched between exaggeration-as-metaphor and the believably strung-out of munching uppers, downers and weight pills like Polos.
The cast are so uniformly excellent, with Marika Engelhardt as the distraught mother and (an underused) Marilyn Dodds Frank as one of the community’s few genuine individuals. Special mention should go to choir sequences that recall all from The Wicker Man to Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in demonstrating peer groups and attempts to communicate across community boundaries. The costumes mix impressively wearable cyberpunk for the kids who want to change their landscapes and a level of drab your average teenager probably wouldn’t brook for those who feel they are doomed.
The problem is it gets carried away with itself. It feels incredibly long and the cast’s number means you’re hard pushed to note what has happened and for whom. Furthermore, despite its diverse actors discussing gender, sexuality, appropriate conduct, and fractured families, it follows in the shadow of a million other features. At one point even those piercing choir sequences devolve into endless interlaced a cappella-singing, floating faces, veering dangerously from American Beauty to the lovelorn twee of High School Musical.
Knives and Skin is a visually fascinating and beautifully acted evocation of loss in a place whose values are changing. However, it is several films in one, with the confusion and running time to match.