It’s difficult to see anything in Reeder’s approach outside of the exceedingly strange ways it pays homage to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
When exploring a specific director’s innate style, sometimes what works about that style comes into sharper focus when analyzing the work of an imitator. Watching Jennifer Reeder’s ambitious and frustrating Knives and Skin, it’s difficult to see anything in her approach outside of the exceedingly strange ways it pays homage to David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks.”
Reeder is a prolific and versatile independent filmmaker whose prior films run the gamut of genre and tone, but her latest is a blatant a Lynch pastiche as the CW Series “Riverdale” and anything Richard Kelly has ever made. But where the former errs further on the side of “safe” and network friendly sheen, with the latter mixing up his influences on a stronger blender setting, Knives and Skin echoes “Twin Peaks” more literally.
The film takes place in an anonymous Midwestern small town where Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) goes missing. Carolyn’s a high school band geek who disappears after a pushy car date with aggressive jock Andy (Ty Olwin). The search for Carolyn becomes an avenue through which to explore the rest of the town’s weird denizens, each and every one of whom are saddled with some brand of quirk or oddball detail. Every supporting player is introduced with some kind of disquieting wrinkle to their persona to the point that it’s hard to relate to or care about any of them.
The best the audience can hope for is to find their individual gimmicks charming or funny enough to not mind the time we have to spend with them. The two most compelling characters (through a sheer mixture of oddity) come in the form of a depressed and unemployed clown played by Tim Hopper and Carolyn’s mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt). Hopper imbues Dan The Out of Work Party Clown with a sincere amount of pathos that offsets how otherwise laughable his sad existence is, but Engelhardt steals the show as the grieving mother whose sadness transcends to mania, particularly in a scene where she can’t stop smelling Andy’s shirt because she can sense her missing daughter on his clothing.
Perhaps with a shorter runtime, fewer characters and even a hair more focus, Knives and Skin could be an entertaining Lynch-influenced take on teen noir, something with sharper edges than “Riverdale” and a more diverse cast to boot. But at two hours and a seemingly endless procession of repetitive players and tired-ass sequences, it feels like an unendurable slog.
Reeder’s approach, to take every individual scene and play it like the world’s most hostile improv exercise, means that moments and interactions are protracted to the point of hilarity, then beyond that to discomfort, then even further into eye-rolling absurdity. Plotless isn’t as much of a problem as totally rhythmless. Lynch’s internal weirdness has always been dream-like in nature and, even to his detractors, something resembling poetry. But Reeder’s particular style here shifts and fidgets too much to leave room for real resonance.
It’s a shame, too, because for every too-cute-by-half turn of the knife, there’s little moments, like one interaction between a teen girl selling used panties to old men and her detached mother, that flirt with real vitality. Unfortunately all the neon-lit cinematography and woozy score from Nick Zinner can’t make up for how tired and affected this film’s off-kilter tone feels. By the fourth or fifth sequence that features the school’s choir singing melancholy covers of ‘80s pop hits, any chance that this could be something special have fallen out the window. All that’s left is the shadow of its potential and the influences it wears on its sleeve.