I caught Knives and Skin at the cozy, sweetly intimate Bishop Arts Theatre Center as part of the Oak Cliff Film Festival, and to be honest, I didn’t even want to see this movie. Having read the blurb describing the film in the program for OCFF, my immediate reaction was, “Fuck. How many movies about murdered girls do we need?”
I will spend exactly three sentences ranting before I tell you why you should see Knives and Skin. Here I go: (1) We’re a pretty fucked-up people culturally speaking, but between relentless sexualization and the festishistic violation of women, we’re basically the moral equivalent of pond scum. (2) While there’s been a little societal clap back through an obsession with “true crime,” to me, that’s just a flimsy Trojan horse to better meditate on the murdered bodies of women with the added zest of getting to linger in pornographic detail over every little clue, contusion, and wound. (3) The fact that many women are now enthusiastically participating in this fascination with our own demise does not necessarily make it healthy, and can, in fact, only act as a “hall pass” for greater, longer, more depraved meditations on the violent erasure of women.
There. We’re past that,so--
The film centers on the disappearance of Carolyn Harper. Through flashbacks and even a musical appearance from the vanished girl, we learn her fate, but not before we are introduced to a cast of colorful characters. There’s the avant-garde, all-girl band Carolyn was a part of. Then there’s Carolyn’s distraught mom who is the school’s oracle-like acapella teacher. Carolyn’s once friend, Lynn, struggles to deal with the slow implosion of her parent’s marriage, as her brother fights to hide what he knows about Carolyn’s disappearance.
Maybe you can see why I wasn’t thrilled to see it. On the surface, it sounds almost shockingly typicial.
But, Knives and Skin takes the viewer by surprise. It’s an old, too-exhausted story that died in harness somewhere between the exploitation films of the 70’s and the ugly, true-crime boom typified by 80’s Lifetime movies, but somehow, this movie manages to wring a few moments of strangeness from the formulaic tale of a young girl seduced and betrayed by a brutal jock. The sparkling unreality of the film certainly serves as a peppy Brechtian barrier between the reality of the crime and the rollicking fun portrayed on screen.
Murder aside, the world of Knives and Skin is nearly a paradise. Multi-ethnic post-punk girl bands dress in rad styles and are the most popular kids in school. Acapella reigns supreme, and 80’s pop song covers are the means of transmitting profound moral and spiritual truths. People of all sexualities are celebrated and embraced, and young lesbian couples enact passionate, loving courtship rituals via love tokens smuggled inside their bodies.
Sure, there are troubles, but even they are of the winningly whimsical variety. A sad clown and a lonely waitress couple in the backseat of a car. A woman acts out her grief by wearing her daughter’s clothes. Another middle-aged mother languishes on a tin foil pillow as her daughter struggles to make ends meet by selling used underwear. But like a sitcom set in the nicest possible hell, all of these problems are, if not resolved, then fully addressed and handled by the end of the film.
Like early David Lynch, Knives and Skin boasts an ecstatic clashing of tones: both nihilistic and optimistic, grimy and beguilingly innocent, grotesque and sweetly sentimental, the film never lets the viewer rest for too long. Everyone remembers Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the symbolic rape in the film’s first half, but everyone forgets the stunningly naieve and embarrassingly good-hearted “robins” speech Laura Dern delivers toward the movie’s end. Take both those scenes down a notch, add some neon colors and 80’s acapella, and there you have Knives and Skin.
The murder that is the centeral linking conceit of Knives and Skin is less Lynchian Madonna/whore hand wringing than an portrait of a community trying to come to terms with its many (kind of whimsical) problems. Does that make it better than the kinds of films and informative murder porn I spent a small paragraph bashing? Maybe. Honestly, I think the story could have survived without this violent interjection. In fact, for most of the film, many of the characters seem to even forget that the dark spectre of death is literally hanging over them. Also, the film’s denouement, which features the lightest punishment for killing a girl I’ve ever seen, strikes a false note.
Knives and Skin is perplexing. Yeah, it’s fun, and I’d watch it again if given the chance. However, rather than the marriage of opposites, this film, with its barely interested preoccupation with violence against a young girl, is a strange clashing of ideas, tones, and story lines. Watch it for yourself. It’s an experience--I’ll give you that-- even as it does nothing to further the dialogue on the violence suffered by women or the way the media revels in this phenomena.