Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin has frequently been compared to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. It’s a good comparison. Both focus on the waves of grief that ripple out through a small town community after the loss of a young woman. In Knives and Skin Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer is murdered. Both the film and the TV show have a dreamlike quality and large casts filled with strange characters. The most impressive part of Reeder’s fourth feature-length film is the way it diverges from Twin Peaks.
Lynch’s TV masterpiece focuses on Laura Palmer because she’s beautiful and popular. Lynch has said the show is his emotional response to the death of Marilyn Monroe. Carolyn is weird and unpopular, nothing like Palmer or Monroe. The film first shows her in her full marching band regalia, with Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) at the quarry. It’s a familiar scene with the two teens kissing until Carolyn cuts his forehead and says, “Now I can find you in the dark if we get separated.” They kiss more before she decides, “I’m not kissing you on the mouth.” Later on, when everyone is talking about their friendship with her, another student calls out the hypocrisy, saying, “I ignored her just like everyone else.”
Reeder’s decision to make Carolyn less lovable is a bold statement. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s death is a town wide tragedy because she was such an important part of the community. Everyone loved her, so everyone was heartbroken. Not everyone loved Carolyn, but that’s why a film about her absence is so important. Reeder is saying that a young woman going missing doesn’t need to be an ideal citizen to be mourned. To exist is enough.
Knives and Skin also tackles rape culture. In that same scene at the quarry, Carolyn decides that she’s doesn’t want to have sex anymore, telling Andy, “I changed my mind.” He throws a tantrum and leaves her there with her glasses. It’s disturbing, and Reeder takes the time to demonstrate how his family enables his behavior, with his grandmother calling in tips about where Carolyn may be to protect him from suspicion. He pressures other women in the backseat of his Mustang later in the film, yelling at one of them, “Why would I want to talk to you?” Andy is one of the dirtier bad boyfriends of 2019, competing with Midsommar’s Christian.
Andy isn’t the only bad boyfriend either. Knives and Skin’s huge cast has a parade of terrible men, but the film isn’t focused on them. Instead, it tells the story of young women breaking free of the Madonna-Whore complex. Early on, Reeder filmed this exchange:
“If you aren’t a c***y sl*t or a b****y tease, well then, what are you?”
For the rest of the film, the women work their own ways free of that dichotomy. Some find they love one another rather than men. Others learn to take control of their sexuality. It’s empowering in a way that’s reminiscent of 2018’s excellent Assassination Nation.
The large, diverse cast also allows Reeder to show how so many of the stereotypes from other films aren’t true. Having so many characters in a film shorter than two hours comes with problems too, though. It’s hard to tell a satisfying story about each of the twenty named characters, especially because of how intricately they’re plotted. Twin Peaks had the same problem. Its second season ended with nearly every plot thread dangling. Many of them weren’t resolved for nearly 30 years, when Showtime revived the show for one more season with The Return.
The other major Twin Peaks similarity was the soundtrack. Both have heavy synth in the scores. Like so much of the rest of Knives and Skin though, it has its own twist. In addition to those synths, there are frequent acapella covers of 80s pop songs—“Promises, Promises” and “Melt With You,” among others—sung by the characters in the film. There are enough of these covers that the film borders on being a musical, but they never feel out of place because Carolyn’s mother, Lisa Harper (Marika Engelhardt), is the choir director.
There isn’t a bad performance in the film, but Engelhardt is the best as a grieving parent. Reeder got intentionally disjointed performances with inappropriate affect from nearly everyone, and Engelhardt does that and then some. She brings the same energy that Ray Wise brings to Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks.
As the title Knives and Skin implies, this is a film that delves into dichotomies. It takes the best elements of one of the best television programs ever made, Twin Peaks, and builds on them, improving where the show slipped. Reeder is immensely talented, making a cult classic with Knives and Skin.
Wicked Rating – 8.5
Director: Jennifer Reeder
Writer: Jennifer Reeder
Stars: Marika Engelhardt, Raven Whitley, Ty Olwin, Kate Arrington, Tim Hopper, James Vincent Meredith
Release Date: December 6, 2019 (In selecter theaters, VOD)
Studio/Production Company: Newcity’s Chicago Film Project
Run-Time: 112 minutes