Tribeca 2019: KNIVES AND SKIN Review: A Stylistically Sharp Suburban Noir
Starring Kate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, Ty Olwin,
Ireon Roach, Grace Smith
Written by Jennifer Reeder
Directed by Jennifer Reeder
Jennifer Reeder’s Knives And Skin is a suburban noir that leans more into character dissection than procedural precinct investigations. Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) has gone missing, which leaves her entire rural Midwest town hanging in suspense. Here’s the opening scene “untwist” – we know what’s happened to Carolyn. Reeder’s intention is to follow classmates, Carolyn’s mother (Lisa, played by Marika Engelhardt), and other parents as the disappearance rocks this too-small-for-comfort Americana microcosm. A homebrewed cocktail of grief, suspicion, and bubblegum brattiness that slides in and out of surreal realities with hazy Brick-adjacent vibes (if stylization over narrative is your thing).
Reeder writes and directs with a focus on sexual exploration during teenage years and “immorality” behind closed doors. Everyone is crushing on someone – fashionista musician chicks eyeing football jocks, forbidden lesbian lust – or is straight up cheating elsewhere (parents aren’t the role models we presume). It’s as much commentary on sex as a weapon as it is sex as a release, especially during one choice altercation between three-year varsity football stud Andy (Ty Olwin) and the cheerleader who rejects him. “You treat girls like shit,” and he does. From Carolyn’s misfortune comes a chastising of braggadocious alpha-male aggression in convertible back seats. “Pointed” is the word I’d use to describe Reeder’s female-first perspective on high school “coolness” and middle-of-nowhere behavioral stagnation.
As judgments are leveled against mourners, police officers attempt to conduct their jobs amidst interference, and daily routines become a bit murkier due to Carolyn’s absence, Reeder’s world embraces dreamlike fluidity. Rigid editing swaps out for acapella segues of 80s pop hits or visitations to Carolyn in her current state. Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises” being sung by a rotating chorus of the people who failed Carolyn, going so far as to have the missing child join in. All completely separate, floating heads in private dealing with the weights upon their chests. It’s a soulful and theatrical representation of humans coping, and also establishes this world where jungle cat t-shirts can talk, or principles buy used lingerie, or metaphors are as heavy-handed as an adulterous father donning clown makeup (physically becoming a joke). Reeder’s firing on Lynchian cylinders as trippy as they come – a John Waters High School Musical.
While some will be by smitten by Reeder’s neon-singed descent into Lisa Harper’s worst nightmare – an overprotective mother who keeps Carolyn’s pretty-pink bedroom untouched out of hope – others will feel discombobulated. Characters are plentiful and focus switches from afterschool football games to rock quarry trysts to pregnant mothers designing glitter “Missing” signs in rapid succession. It can be a chore to keep parent-children relationships straight, while also monitoring everyone’s signature issues. The good-guy athlete, jilted seamstress, vodka-soaked tampon purveyor – it’s easy to become entangled in Reeder’s zig-zagging web, and while themes or cinematography might impress, impact weakens when lacking coherence.
Marika Engelhardt leads this performative pack as Carolyn’s sullen, obsessive mother with such broken gravitas. Confident enough to wear her daughter’s dresses to the high school where she instructs Carolyn’s peers as choir leader, yet crazed like a bloodhound following her daughter’s scent (literally, in what turns into the film’s most upsetting and twisted encounter). Kate Arrington gets to play around as a motherly diner waitress ripped from the 50s (outside appearance), Ireon Roach slays her book report stage productions (a commanding talent), and Grace Smith’s journey throughout Knives And Skin stands as the most affecting (so smart, so manipulative, so vulnerable). It’s true that some students’ arcs are less fleshed-out or parents’ arcs less memorable, but Reeder has a lot to say about becoming stuck inside Anytown, USA imprisonment. Everyone is so afraid to face their problems, scampering behind each others’ backs for solutions.
It’s this undercurrent of entrapment that eventually frees characters to be everything they want. There’s a resonating line – yelled by a teen in a “Beavers” mascot costume – about how he can see the highway from atop his school’s roof. It’s a reminder that there’s a way out, and after graduation, anyone can leave. Whether it be a grandmother consoling her granddaughter when an ill-advised “date” turns inappropriate, or the exhaustion of lying to attain status, Knives And Skin whispers a sincere reminder: “It gets better.” Whether you’ve been cheated on, or experience inconsolable heartbreak, or feel out of place, we can move on.
I know, I know. Isn’t this a story about Carolyn Harper’s missing person? Undoubtedly – but as I stated, Knives And Skin pays more attention to coping mechanisms and aftermaths than solving any case. Clues illuminate like a macabre children’s television show if only to add more style as Carolyn’s glasses burst green or a C-shaped cut glows red. Jennifer Reeder’s visualizations are sugar-pop colorful, as scenes – don’t ask me why – remind of It Follows on an aesthetic level, and despite her screenplay being scattershot-messy, it’s hard to deny a not-so-mysterious caper that sells its most impactful, elegant moments. A tale rich with tragedy, rough around the edges, but sharp like the knife Lisa carries when it counts.
Knives And Skin is an effervescent small-town noir that draws darkness from human actions, making a monster out of archaic rural imprisonment etched in decades-old stone.