Knives and Skin

(Jennifer Reeder, USA, 2019)


At least since River’s Edge (1986), and on through the David Lynch’s entire Twin Peaks cycle (1990-2017), popular cinema and TV have been obsessed with the figure of the mysterious dead girl, murdered or missing (and thus presumed dead). This motif has produced not only imitations but also a plethora of studies and critiques in audiovisual form, including Philip Brophy’s multimedia project Colour Me Dead (2013, ongoing) and Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s What Happened to Her (2016 – based, in fact, on an unsettling account of the shoot of River’s Edge’s by its corpse-actor, Danyi Deats).


In Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin, however, this teenage girl, Carolyn (Raven Whitley), is never entirely dead: she’s there in the woods unnoticed, she rolls with the breeze. She even sings! Her death may be accidental, but it’s still traumatic for her and for everyone in her community: friends, adults, cops, teachers.


Defiantly punk-goth surrealistic, anti-naturalistic and militantly queer in most details (especially the lurid colours and the 1980s pop songs delivered as a cappella ballads), the film depicts a carnivalesque, inverted world. The most apparently alienated kids have the deepest insights and most intimate connections, while the parents flounder in their static neuroses, perversities and compulsions.


Marking a transition from her acclaimed short films to a feature format, Reeder plays with our traditional narrative expectations of psychological development, certainty and closure. Almost inevitably, this kind of push to abstraction, repetition and deconstruction doesn’t always “grip”, internally or for the viewer (a similar problem besets Josephine Decker’s feature work).


But, for once, we are truly invited into the inner minds and feelings of (especially female) teenagers, where everything has a different rhythm, a finer morality and a new meaning. It offers, on this terrain, an intriguing companion to Sam Levinson’s TV series Euphoria (2019, ongoing), which is closer to the Larry Clark model of spaced-out teen grunge, but shares in Reeder’s sense of a collectively distributed choral narration and a tendency toward (in the words of one of Levinson’s characters) “infinite queerness”.

© Adrian Martin 24 July 2019

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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