The Reflecting Skin is the kind of movie that you’ll Google as soon as you’ve finished. People have been talking about it, trying to decipher, since it came out in 1990. So much happens in this surrealist nightmare, and so little of it comes together coherently—which isn’t meant as a criticism; the film isn’t interested in telling a cohesive story—that it will leave you perplexed. Director/writer Philip Ridley seems more interested in asking questions than providing answers.
The film follows Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) through his Iowa childhood. Nearly every exterior is set in an intentionally oversaturated wheat field where there was never a cloudy day. Nick Bicât’s score is full of vibrant violins, underscoring that Little House on the Prairie vibe the visuals establish. Ridley juxtaposes all of this brilliantly with gruesome imagery. There’s a mummified infant/fetus; a roving pack of Elvis inspired, child molesting murderers; and a self-immolation. These horrors and others come seemingly at random throughout the story. Seth “Dove”—as in a symbol for innocence, get it?—bears witness but can’t comprehend what he’s seeing while the viewer does. The dissonance is palpable.
The most famous image is the exploding frog, which comes in the first fifteen minutes. Seth and two other boys capture a frog, blow air into it with a reed so it can’t move. They put it on the road in front of Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). When she gets closer to investigate the ribbitting, they shoot it with a slingshot. It explodes, spraying her with blood.
Dolphin tells Seth’s unhinged mother Ruth (Sheila Moore), who sends Seth over to apologize. Dolphin’s a British woman living alone in her dead husband’s family home, which doubles as a whaling museum. She gives Seth a harpoon to take home, and tells him, “We used to tie fireworks to cat’s tails and set them on fire” before showing him a box of her husband’s things. Seth understands little, perceiving her figurative language and teasing as signs that she’s a vampire. Duncan captures a manic grief in her performance, a sadness that feels like it’s tearing itself out of her every moment.
A very young Viggo Mortensen plays his characters, Seth’s brother Cameron, brilliantly as well. Cameron arrives to help take care of Seth, and shortly after begins dating Dolphin. Mortensen has an a thousand-yard stare that hints at the things he witnessed in the War without ever addressing them explicitly.
The film’s title comes from one of the few war souvenirs Cameron shares. While they’re sitting at the kitchen table, Cameron gives Seth a black-and-white photo of a child who’d been badly burnt by an atom bomb. As Cameron explains, the baby’s “skin got all shivery, shiny. You could see your face in it.” And maybe that’s what the film is meant to be: a reflecting skin through which viewers are meant to see the ways they participate and perpetuate the world’s brutality. But then again, maybe it’s about the way, as Dolphin tells Seth, “Terrible things happen quite naturally.” The film doesn’t lend itself to easy interpretation.
This Blu-ray remastering corrects twenty-five years of unavailability and low quality home video editions, finally restoring the film to how Ridley intended it to be seen. He says as much in the forty-five minute documentary “Angels and Atom Bombs: The Making of the Reflecting Skin.” The special feature is illuminating in a number of ways, but especially in giving a window into the way Ridley thinks of film. His background as a painter informs his decisions visually, and his incoherence narratively. The Blu-ray also includes a Director’s Commentary.
There’s not much anyone could write about The Reflecting Skin that would carry the disturbing emotional weight of the film itself. You should make it a point to experience this film at least once.
Wicked Rating: 9/10
Director(s): Philip Ridley
Stars: Jeremy Cooper, Lindsay Duncan, Viggo Mortensen
Release: August 13, 2019 (Blu-ray)
Studio/ Production Co: British Screen Productions, BBC Films, Zenith Entertainment
Length: 96 minutes
Sub-Genre: Horror Thriller