“I need to know there’s a way out of this place.” So says one of the many teenage characters in writer-director Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin. For kids in a small town, one that feels oppressive and choking, like it’s squeezing the life out of you at every turn, it’s a common feeling. This undercurrent flows through the surreal adolescent noir that borders on magical realist fable or allegory.
Soaked in a heightened, giallo-inspired color palate, mixing elements from ‘70s Italian thrillers, ‘80s horror, and ‘90s teen melodrama, Knives and Skin plays like the teen angst of Heathers, filtered through a feminist David Lynch lens. It flies its Twin Peaks influence boldly—think a less silly and over-the-top Riverdale and that’s a good starting point.
When a teen girl named Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing, it leaves a small Midwest town to deal with the fallout. Following the lead of its inspirations, what unfolds is less about the mystery than about how this tragedy impacts the people and looks at what happens to the survivors and those left behind.
If this all sounds relatively straight-forward, it’s not. More mood, atmosphere, and tone that plot, Knives and Skin paints a picture of a town wallowing in collective grief, kids coming of age and losing what little innocence they had, and the long tendrils shared trauma.
Off-kilter vibes and lingering tensions bubble and ferment, as the seemingly normal town exterior masks illicit affairs, deep secrets, and betrayals. An underlying sadness and strangeness flows through the film and the people. This is the kind of place where young woman supplement their income casually selling dirty underwear to teachers, where clown cunnilingus is something that happens, and love and lust, longing and heartache seep into each line of loaded, stilted dialogue.
Every element Reeder assembles adds to and enhances the unsettling ambiance. A lush color scheme, elaborate costumes, and maudlin, mawkish covers of otherwise up-tempo ‘80s jams, all create a setting that’s simultaneously familiar and alien. Some of the affectations feel a bit much—they go back to the sad cover song well a few too many times, which lessens the impact of other uses—but there’s a keen eye and unchained purpose in play.
And that’s the biggest takeaway from Knives and Skin. It bears heavy markers of obvious influences, but it’s an ambitious mixture brought together in an original fashion and with distinct vision that leaves a definite impression. Bleak and grin, but ultimately hopeful and optimistic, Jennifer Reeder creates something unique and special. She’s a fresh new voice with much to add to the conversation.