Knives and Skin. 2019. Directed & Written by Jennifer Reeder.
Starring Kate Arrington, Marika Engelhardt, Tim Hopper, Tony Fitzpatrick, Ty Olwin, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Alex Moss, Robert T. Cunningham, Ireon Roach, Raven Whitley, Audrey Francis, Genevieve Venjohnson, Kayla Carter, Grace Etzkorn, Jalen Gilbert, Aurora Real de Asua, Emma Ladji, & Haley Bolithon.
Newcity’s Chicago Film Project / Full Spectrum Features
Not Rated / 111 minutes
Disclaimer: The following article contains significant spoilers
Those familiar with Jennifer Reeder won’t be surprised to find that Knives and Skin— which screened last night at 2019’s Fantasia Festival— is a vibrant work filled to the brim with feminine power. Like Accidents at Home and How They Happen and, more recently, Signature Move, the focus of Reeder’s stories are always, first and foremost, girls and women. Her latest is different than both of those yet shares much of the same DNA. All her work seems to gravitate towards the truth, comfortable or not, about the act of discovering our identities.
Knives and Skin is a coming-of-age tale meets rural neo-noir exacerbated by unthinkable tragedy. Similar to the way in which Laura Palmer’s tragic death accelerated a growing up process and a loss of innocence in the characters of Twin Peaks, so does the disappearance of young Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) affect a little unnamed town here, thrusting both young and old into existential turmoil.
People who grew up in an insular town, like Father Gore, will recognise the toxicity these characters encounter as they attempt to simply be themselves, just as well as they’ll recognise the rural rituals and coping mechanisms that follow tragedy. There’s also hugely important perspective on adolescence giving way to adulthood— these characters show us how becoming an adult is, for some, a lifelong process. The best part is that Reeder situates this little town in an ethereal space, where magic realism is always potentially hiding, waiting to be found, and the past connects itself to the present via acapella versions of songs from the 1980s.
“You’ll make a mess down here
and it’s already
such a fucking mess
An interesting aspect of small town life and death is how, when someone dies, there’s often a flood of people who either a) never knew the deceased or b) never liked the deceased that come out of the woodwork to suddenly tell stories about the person and claim them as a part of their lives. Carolyn’s disappearance prompts this reaction out of some kids at her school. It isn’t always an act, though. When a young person goes missing / dies in a rural place, others the same age feel the loss of innocence in unexpected ways as they begin to question their own mortality. For some, it may be the first time they’ve ever really thought about the idea that they, too, could die at an early age. They start to think “nobody ever leaves this place” except by way of death.
Then, they cope with these feelings in a number of ways— some healthy, some not. Joanna (Grace Smith) sells her mother’s used underwear, hawking drugs and alcohol-soaked tampons to her fellow students to make money, trying to save enough to get herself out of that town. Carolyn’s mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt) takes to wearing her daughter’s clothes, as if keeping the girl alive by walking around in them, conjuring her memory from the material things she touched.
One of the rituals in rural places and other tight-knit communities when someone dies involves food. Before Carolyn is found dead, while she’s only missing, her mother refuses the offer of food: “I don‘t think it‘s time yet for a casserole.” A clever way of introducing the death ritual of food into this rural neo-noir. Lisa refuses because accepting the food means accepting her daughter’s dead. After Carolyn’s body is actually found, food is brought to Ms. Harper’s home, completing the ritual. She still can’t accept it entirely. The image of her at the table with a full, uneaten cake melting in front of her is perfectly symbolic of an inability to accept her daughter’s death.
Reeder expands on the story’s distinct rural nature by bringing in an element of magic realism. Rural places are closer to the world of magic and folklore than urban areas. Throughout the film there are instances of magic in everyday life, such as the glowing scar Carolyn leaves on Andy (Ty Olwin), like a mark of shame, the talking lioness on Lynn’s (Audrey Francis) shirt urging empowerment, Carolyn’s glasses, and more.
The magic realism of the glasses is most significant. Their glowing power is symbolic of how the objects people we love touch / interact with become imbued with their memory, lingering beyond death in quiet power. Same as Lisa wearing Carolyn’s clothes, or coveting the box of baby teeth.
Fitting that the glasses allow Ms. Harper closure. The opening shot of the film is of the mother’s tortured eyes. The final shot has Lisa put on her daughter’s glasses, seeing Carolyn, as if living, in a vivid memory of happier days right as the credits roll. A heartwarming visual, a glowing beacon in the darkness.
“We are shit”
Reeder makes a point to focus on the perpetual act of growing up. While we may lose our innocence, one way or another, we never fully ‘grow up.’ There are moments in life— such as death, birth / pregnancy, betrayal, so on— when we act irrationally, no matter our age, or do things we later regret. Two characters have an affair in a town where everybody knows everyone else’s business. One woman’s faking her pregnancy. A teacher, who lives with his parents, tries to put the moves on Joanna while simultaneously scoring drugs off her. Barely any of the adults are shown to be totally mature, responsible individuals, as adolescent as their children are in their lives.
Even if Carolyn’s disappearance and death weren’t due to murder, sexist notions of being led her to that situation. She changed her mind about having sex and football jerk Andy left her alone, vulnerable, and near blind without glasses. Here, we see the unfair sexual pressure put upon girls / women and the dangers they face when they don’t meet those patriarchal male expectations. Some catharsis comes later when Laurel (Kayla Carter) finally calls Andy out for his treatment of girls. He’s an example of toxic masculinity that may not kill, but nevertheless has consequences. Reeder doesn’t let him totally escape his behaviour. Although like it is usually in real life, it’s the girls who’ve got to do the job of teaching while men remain oblivious to their own actions and those of their friends.
One exchange of dialogue epitomises these attitudes, showing how, early on, girls are forced to learn the way they’re seen by men. They’re resigned to a rigid system of gender in their town: women can either be a “cunty slut” or a “bitchy tease.” And if they’re not playing one of the dichotomous roles? They’re “nothing” or “nobody.”
Thankfully, like other insular attitudes, these can be combated, if not broken. These girls start to see glimmers of hope shine through, letting them know they’re more than the sum of small town judgements.
We are, we are, we are but your children
Finding our way around indecision
We are, we are, we are ever helpless
Take us forever, a whisper to a scream.
— “Birds Fly (Whisper To A Scream)”
by The Icicle Works
Pop culture runs throughout. The cast sing acapella versions of ’80s tunes (“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper / “Promises, Promises” by Naked Eyes / “Blue Monday” by New Order” / “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” by the Icicle Works / “I Melt With You” by Modern English / “Our Lips are Sealed” by the Go-Go’s). There’s even brief mentions of Princess Leia and E.T the Extra-Terrestrial.
Just like pop culture is cyclical— look at all the new Star Wars movies, the popularity of Stranger Things and its fun blasts of nostalgia, the rebooting of movie franchises and TV shows from our youth— so is the idea that nothing ever changes, both in a small town and in society as a whole. The characters in Knives and Skin start to feel they’re incapable of escaping the rural cycles in which they’re stuck, whether it’s the effects of misogyny / sexism, self-destructive behaviour, or closed minds.
The ending suggests these cycles can be broken. In one scene, Jesse (Robert T. Cunningham), the sensitive school mascot, goes to the top of his school, where people assume the worst: he’s going to kill himself. He’s actually trying to hold onto hope, looking out to the limits of their tiny town so he can know there’s “a way out” that doesn’t involve leaping off the building, or, worse, disappearing into tragedy like Carolyn.
Knives and Skin tackles a number of heavy topics. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, no matter if things get dark in the midst of the film’s beautiful colour palette. Maybe Carolyn Harper won’t be as well known as Laura Palmer. She’s still an effective example of the shining light of a good person in a hideous world like Lynch’s eternal character. Reeder’s film is an interesting exercise in genre, and an intelligent, deeply sensitive, subversive look at small town issues of gender and other social dynamics.