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Small-Town Grief Gets Surreal In The Twisted And Twisty 'Knives And Skin'

Jennifer Reeder wrote and directed the quirky teen noir <em>Knives and Skin</em>.
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Jennifer Reeder wrote and directed the quirky teen noir Knives and Skin.

After two seasons of its original network run, a prequel film, and a recent 18-episode revival on Showtime, many have forgotten the crushing sadness that suffused the two-hour pilot of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, to be eclipsed gradually by a more pervasive eccentricity. Here was a small town that had never experienced anything like the death of Laura Palmer, that precious girl wrapped in plastic, and its reaction was a combination of collective grief and individual peculiarity. And as the darkness on the edge of town began to encroach on the everyday lives of its citizens, their heightened fear and emotion often propels them into weird, unrecognizable behavior.

The Twin Peaks influence looms large over Knives and Skin, writer-director Jennifer Reeder's delectably twisted slice-of-life, starting with the disappearance of another blonde teenager and a small town that doesn't know how to process it. Reeder sprinkles in references to other touchstones, too, like the '80s sounds of John Hughes' suburbia and the alien glow of Repo Man, but she twists them to her own ends, unearthing funny perversions and relationships that spill across racial and sexual identities. It's Twin Peaks as recast through the lens of radical feminism, if not nearly as academic as that sounds.

Shot in Dario Argento colors, the tantalizing opening scene has a knife-wielding mother prying open the lock to her daughter's room, but her intent isn't as obvious as it seems. The daughter, Carolyn (Raven Whitley), has gone missing from the house, but she pops up briefly in the next scene, where Andy (Ty Olwin), a Mustang-driving jock, reacts violently to her refusal to follow through on a sexual favor. What becomes of Carolyn is not as clear as what happened to Laura Palmer, but it's the last anyone sees of her, and Andy is left with a scratch on his forehead that never stops bleeding, like the beating of the telltale heart.

Carolyn's mother (Marika Engelhardt) dutifully resumes her role as the high-school choir teacher, leading girls through hilariously desultory renditions of pop songs like The Go-Gos' "Our Lips Are Sealed" and Modern English's "I Melt With You," but she's falling apart. She's not the only one, either. Carolyn's classmates and their parents are also embroiled in secret lives: One girl sells her mother's used undergarments to a teacher (he offers to pay by check or gas card, but it's a cash-only trade), two bad marriages yield an affair between a pregnant woman and an unemployed clown (definitely the sad type), and two cheerleaders quietly connect by passing notes and trinkets to each other over adjoining bathroom stalls.

Knives and Skin teems over with oddball conceits and feminist themes, as if Reeder were pouring several films' worth of ideas into a single script. Because Carolyn's fate is basically tabled for the entire film — and she's not even a subject of conversation after a while — there's no narrative engine to propel this slice-of-life forward, which makes the pacing lumpy and the revelations occasionally arbitrary. Each scene has to live or die on its own merits, rather than functioning as part of a larger piece of machinery, and that's difficult to sustain over time.

And yet, Reeder mostly manages it. Carolyn may not be a tangible presence in the storytelling, but she's the intangible force that haunts the film and colors much of the action. Knives and Skin has a few consistent items on the agenda —the predatory nature of several male teachers and students, the fluidity of love across various boundaries, the strange manifestations of grief — but it rarely feels like Reeder is imposing herself too didactically. This is the small Midwest town she's created in her mind and it runs on its own persuasive internal logic.

"I hate clichés more than I hate selfish lovers," says one character, not long after the airbrushed lion on her t-shirt starts talking to her. For Reeder, that appears to be a mantra.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.
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