'Knives And Skin' Review: A Neon-Soaked Domestic Drama That Flirts Effectively With Genre

If you filtered a classic character-driven film like The Last Picture Show through a giallo color palette and infused it with impending dread of a horror flick, you'd get something that looked a lot like Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin. The writer-director begins her film with a missing girl, the inciting incident for any number of genres, and lets it spiral away outwards organically. It's a thriller, a bit of noir, a lot of coming-of-age tale, always small-town domestic drama. To Reeder's immense credit, her film glides forward with an aura of mystery but never feels like genre mix-and-match.

The specter of teenage band geek Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) looms large over Knives and Skin, but finding her body or anyone involved with her disappearance never takes up much space in the film. Reeder always centers the large web of people affected by her absence. For these Midwestern small-town dwellers, teens and adults alike, the prospect that Carolyn is six feet under unearths complicated emotions that often go unexplored or unexpressed in their daily lives. Grief, regret and longing resurface in their interactions, most of which manifest in the seeming inability of anyone in the town to create or sustain a personal connection.

A pervasive aura of discomfort and disconnectedness settles over Knives and Skin from the outset. There's always something ever so slightly off in any given moment that strikes as incongruous, not so much to make us doubt the world Reeder created but just enough to make us lean in a little more to figure out what's really at play. The film's visuals reflect the frenzy created by the heightened stakes of Carolyn vanishing. The performances and dialogue, however, maintain an intriguing flatness and deadpan. They are never boring, to be clear – quite the opposite.

In many ways, providing the negative inverse of the film's over-the-top style when it comes to the human dimension helps keep Knives and Skin grounded. The absence of affectation forces viewers to lean in and make sense of the complicated morass of emotions, just as the characters must do themselves. What is one to make of a line referring to a sum of money as "enough for half an illegal abortion or early admit deadline to Sarah Lawrence?" We're in the same position as everyone set adrift by Carolyn's disappearance, forced to make sense of the unknowable because there's simply no other choice to move forward.

This strange synthesis helps Knives and Skin amount to more than just the sum of its influences and inputs. Reeder sculpts her influences and reference points into something altogether mysterious and beguiling, where the very things that might repel us in a less-confidently directed film draw us further into the mysteries and ambiguities. The more muted, less hysterical depictions of grandiose emotions provide a unique window into those feelings. The dryness, too, allows Reeder to explore – and even explode – archetypes with her critical feminist eye, in particular the grief-stricken mother. Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt) responds to life without her daughter in particularly surprising and unexpected ways, especially as it pertains to her interactions with the last person to see Carolyn alive, Andy (Ty Olwin). Her actions might appear transgressive to the naked eye, but through Reeder's lens, it's a natural exploration of where a person on edge might let their unchecked pining lead them.

Lisa makes for the natural point of attention in a film where it can prove somewhat challenging to keep track of the wide array of characters in Knives and Skin, sometimes to the point of confusion. It's hard to chide any work of art that's trying to center the narratives of queer and multi-racial teens just given their dearth of on-screen representation, yet the narrative can feel a bit overstuffed. Still, the overall mood of the piece provides a strong enough emotional throughline to stay tethered to the action and engaged with the ideas. 

/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10