‘Knives and Skin’: Quirky insta-cult nominee commands a ‘Who killed Caroline Harper?’
It’s hard to embrace or dismiss “Knives and Skin,” the hip indie curio from Jennifer Reeder. Arty, ambitious and hugely evocative – of David Lynch, primarily, but plenty of others as well, “Knives and Skin“ is a true mixed bag that’s a sheer wonderment to drink in, even though you can see it straining vaingloriously for cult status (think “Under the Silver Lake”).
The film begins with a pair of high schoolers off for some nookie in the woods. Caroline Harper (Raven Whitley) without consent carves a “C” on the forehead of her betrothed, Andy (Ty Olwin). Why? So she can find him in the dark. Andy, something of a shallow, semi-good-looking jock, doesn’t seem to care so much as long as the goods are all there, but things don’t go as one might expect. The two separate, and Caroline’s never seen again – becoming something of a stand-in for Lynch’s Laura Palmer in “Twin Peaks” and the impetus for most everything else that starts going weird in the Midwestern burb.
Reeder’s touches of outré include a grandmother who relishes porn, an adulterous adult who performs cunnilingus in clown regalia and his partner, who complains about TMJ and carpal tunnel syndrome when the oral is reciprocated. Then there’s Carolyn herself, who from elsewhere or beyond gives us “Rashomon”-esque testimony, mostly in song and in a bright majorette uniform. The most gripping of it all – and the film’s best performance – is Marika Engelhardt as Carolyn’s mother, Lisa, who can smell Carolyn on Andy and seeks to retrace her steps with him from both a sexual and forensic point of view. The craziest may be Andy’s sister, Joanna (Grace Smith), who sells her mother’s used underwear to the school’s principal and other local prominent men (cash only).
Who knew suburbia was so demented? Well, Lynch, for one; Richard Kelly, who made “Donnie Darko” (2001) for two; and then Michael Lehmann, who made “Heathers” in 1988.
On of the joys of Reeder’s journey behind the closed doors of middle America is the multiracial a cappella group Caroline was involved in. Not only is there a palpable sisterhood (the passing of cherished icons from stall to stall in the ladies room is both touching and an eye popper) and a feminist flag subtly being waved, but the renditions of ’80s classics by New Order, Cyndi Lauper and The Go-Gos are haunting and infectious as they murkily dial up a sense of nostalgic recall.
The major subtractions to “Knives and Skin” is that Andy and Carolyn aren’t so compelling. Andy’s a boorish, self-interested lad, and why any woman gives him the time of day is beyond me. Still the neon-infused work by cinematographer Christopher Rejano and saucy servings from the closet make Reeder’s hodgepodge of shocking revelations-cum-feminist anthem a watchable something hanging between camp and cult.
Tom Meek is a writer living in Cambridge. His reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in the WBUR ARTery, The Boston Phoenix, The Boston Globe, The Rumpus, The Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal. Tom is also a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics and rides his bike everywhere.