Someone recently asked me what I’m looking for when reviewing a movie. It’s a question that gets lobbed at critics every so often. When I started reviewing movies 8 billion years ago, I probably would have offered a lofty diatribe, breaking down my assessment of the acting, directing, writing, cinematography and a number of technical categories, before deciding whether the movie passed my rigorous grading system. Nowadays, after thousands upon thousands of reviews, the goal is much simpler: I just want to see something entertaining, surprising or both. “Entertaining” and “surprising” are two words that aptly describe Jennifer Reeder’s “Knives and Skin.”
There’s a scene near the middle of the movie, one of the film’s many moments that uses music to set the mood where I literally declared out loud, “This shit is bananas … B-A-N-A-N-A-S!” The film’s high-school-by-way-of-music-video vibe reminded me of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” “Knives and Skin” is a unique, weird experience, rooted in a wide range of influences—from “Twin Peaks” to “Pretty in Pink.”
Carolyn (Raven Whitley) is a band girl with a bad streak who takes Andy (Ty Olwin) to the lake with promises of unemotional skin-to-skin contact. When she changes her mind and spurns his advances, Andy pulls a classic dick move and abandons Carolyn, leaving her stranded. The problem is exacerbated when Carolyn vanishes and a town full of secrets and lost souls begins to interact.
The cast of colorful, eccentric characters are wonderfully Lynchian. Dan (Tim Hopper) is a part-time clown, struggling with issues of failure and fidelity. Carolyn’s mother, Lisa (Raven Whitley), starts the movie as an odd bird but takes full flight after her daughter vanishes, giving her a number of absolutely mesmerizing scenes where she tries to discover truth about Carolyn’s disappearance. Reeder’s cast really deserves a shout out. It’s a large, diverse ensemble that does a great job making the world feel real enough to engage emotionally. The danger of something as oddly wonderful as “Knives and Skin” is how removed it can feel from recognizable reality. Thankfully, this well-picked cast helps keep the real in surreal.
There’s a lovely musical motif woven through the movie. A capella performances of some well-known ’80s pop music help take things further into surreal territory and builds on an engaging score by Nick Zinner. This is a movie where music feels like a consideration from the project’s inception, and it shows. I appreciate Reeder’s attempts at using music as something other than emotional color. It shows how fully realized this technicolor vision was before bringing it to the screen.
There are some moments where the narrative begins to drift and I wondered which way the wayward threads would careen. All the characters seem connected by plot elements and a tangential sense of suffering, which can at times make things feel a little melodramatic. It’s a fair trade for a movie that manages to deftly avoid cliché. I don’t ever recall seeing a movie where a clown performs cunnilingus. Now I have.
“Knives and Skin” is a feature-film foray that weaves a number of influences into something cinematically unique. Its vibe is macabre and darkly comic, like “Heathers” or “Jawbreaker,” but embraces some stranger artistic impulses. It’s worth a watch.