Fantasia 2019: KNIVES AND SKIN – A Feminist Teen Noir that Stuns and Beguiles


Review By: Jason Oliver

As the end credits rolled at the Fantasia 2019 World Premiere for director Jennifer Reeder’s film KNIVES AND SKIN, I was in immediate need of perspective. I felt (and still feel) unqualified to objectively review this film with a critical eye given that I am not its primary target audience. I say this being neither a woman or a parent, however, I agree with director Anna Biller who wrote  that “to be feminist, a movie has to have the express purpose of educating its audience about social inequality between men and women (and, I would argue, not take pleasure in the voyeuristic degradation of women)” Reeder succeeds on both scores to varying degrees, and I myself would argue that men are the most in need of such education. A breakdown of society’s prevailing patriarchy must come from within just as much as it must be exposed by the women it suppresses, thus education and perspective is crucial. I walked away from this film with an abundance of both and a primer for more. If that were at all Reeder’s intent, then the film is already a success. 

Too often nowadays you have so-called “feminist” films made by men, like the recent remake of Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA by director Luca Guadagnio, that satisfy neither of Biller’s criteria and ultimately pervert woman’s agency and power to show how it too can corrupt. While this may be true about the nature of having any kind of power over another, it’s not helpful in my mind for Guadagino to call his movie a “great feminist film” when it is anything but. If anything, his film is counterproductive to the feminist point of view while exploiting female power struggles within their own gender and condescending toward men with a “mother knows best” attitude regarding how I should feel about such jarring themes like survivor’s guilt, grief, marriage, and sociopolitical activism. But I digress. If you’d like to hear my co-podcast mate and I rant for about 30 minutes on this topic, you can do so here.

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So what is KNIVES AND SKIN? I’ll start with the film’s official synopsis:

“KNIVES AND SKIN follows the investigation of a young girl’s disappearance in a stylized version of a rural Midwest town that hovers just above reality, led by an inexperienced local sheriff. Unusual coping techniques develop among the traumatized small-town residents with each new secret revealed. The ripple of fear and suspicion destroys some relationships and strengthens others. The backdrop of trauma colors quintessential rituals—classrooms, dances, courtship, football games—in which the teenagers experience an accelerated loss of innocence while their parents are forced to confront adulthood failures. This mystical teen noir presents coming of age as a lifelong process and examines the profound impact of grief.”

KNIVES AND SKIN is Reeder’s first feature length film, but she has made several short films that explore similar themes, creative devices, and artistic style. Her vision feels fully formed and realized here. It’s a film that takes an almost mischievous pleasure in beguiling the audience. There’s a disaffection on display not only in it’s teenage character’s but also in the adults and parents who make up the small mid-west town. There’s an obvious comment being made that angst isn’t owned by teenagers. It evolves into the angst of young adulthood, the middle-aged, and beyond. No one really has any model for how we should be in this world and we perpetuate that into adulthood. This is how power dynamics are institutionalized. The only character in the film who really seems at peace with their own place in the world is the elderly Gramma, and in turn is able to give the only true moment of comfort by an adult to one of our teenage characters. Their other adult examples continue to disappoint in various ways.

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At the heart of the film is the disappearance of Carolyn, who you realize early on has died as a result of an accident caused by her boyfriend. He angrily shoves her after she changes her mind about having sex with him. She falls and hits her head. Not knowing she is injured, her boyfriend drives away. She is punished for taking control of her sexual and physical agency, because she initially “promised” she would have sex with him. Before the accident, Carolyn brands her boyfriend with a scratch of the letter “C” on his forehead. It’s a wound that never heals and serves as a Scarlet Letter of sorts, warning other young girls that this boy “treats girls like shit” as another teenage girl so succinctly put it.

Reeder stated in the Q&A after the film that she purposefully used the “dead girl” trope in order to subvert the exploitative manner in which that device has been used. While she admits that people seem to immediately compare her film to David Lynch’s TWIN PEAKS, she feels like it is more akin to films like 1986’s THE RIVER’S EDGE. What makes Reeder’s film unique is that she gives Carolyn agency even in death. Her body and personal items take on supernatural properties that continue to affect and uncover emotional awakenings in the lives of the people who knew her. 

In addition to female agency, the film has quite a bit to say on the nature of grief and how that process unfolds. We see grief from multiple perspectives: Carolyn’s friends, her mother, and the town sheriff and his wife who are already grieving a profound loss which is slowly and expertly revealed. There are many musical numbers in the form of harmonized choir renditions of 80’s pop tunes. It’s a device that Reeder has used in her body of short film work and fits perfectly in this feature. In one profound moment, the girls choir, led by Carolyn’s mother, sing New Order’s BLUE MONDAY during which they take turns leaning into each other’s ears and whispering their personal fears, traumas, and encouragements to each other. The words are written in neon pink subtitles for the audience to read. It’s as if singing together has become a place where these girls can allow themselves to be vulnerable, ask for help, and lift each other up instead of fronting a demeanor of strength and well-adjustment that they don’t really feel. It’s in this moment that they are able to see themselves in each other and understand that they are their own best allies. They in turn take this knowledge and use it to help others move past their own grief in a healthy and confronting way. 

Another trope that Reeder plays against is that of the “articulate teen”. You see it in nearly every TV show made for teens about teens. Teenagers are able to express themselves in perfectly expressed dialogue that always moves the plot forward. Perhaps the only examples in television I’ve seen that get it right are MY SO-CALLED LIFE and to some degree, FREAKS AND GEEKS. Here, Reeder takes an interesting approach. She subverts the trope by writing teenage dialogue that feels under-articulated and sometimes just as a statement of fact. They say things that are only really understood in their heads, but when stated aloud have almost an air of what is generally associated with a French post-modern pretension. The only other example I can think of this idea being used was in another teenage noir film, Rian Johnson’s 2005 film BRICK. But even that was different and more of a subversion by using teenage slang and making it its own knowingly secret and well developed language. 

There is so much more to say about Jennifer Reeder’s KNIVES AND SKIN, but it might be best to leave the rest of it alone and allow you your own discovery. It is a rich and symbolic allegory packed with detail to enrich the viewers’ own personal education of the film’s themes and in multiple viewings. In short, it’s a creative triumph.

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