Narratives surrounding disappearances, especially those of children, are becoming more and more popular. With the success of shows like Stranger Things, Sharp Objects, and Dark, it’s easy to see why. There’s some really good mystery there, which is primarily due to the investigative element that holds those shows together. However, in the case of Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin, there isn’t one. What was promoted as being an investigation into the disappearance of a missing girl turns into an exploration of all the drama and secrets that lie within the film’s suburbia.
Carolyn (played by Raven Whitley) carves her initial with her thumb into a high school jock’s forehead. “With a ‘C,’” she reminds him, “now I can find you in the dark if we get separated.” The bloody initial illuminates. They were about to have sex, but she changes her mind. He leaves. Carolyn is standing by the lake alone, yelling for him. She falls. As the days go by, the camera focuses on her marching band hat and her blood on the ground, both evaporating as though Carolyn herself never existed—one of the many moments that the film shows its visual strength.
And the narrative of Knives and Skin, for the most part, makes it feel like she really didn’t exist. If it weren’t for Carolyn’s mother (played by Marika Engelhardt, who’s the standout of the film), she definitely would have been forgotten early into the runtime. Mrs. Harper’s immense grief and anger are shown in mysterious ways that bring some focus back to a narrative that’s really all over the place.
A long list of characters connected to Carolyn are explored in Knives and Skin, but not with the right care that would give proper insight into them or even the ability to remember any of their names. There are infidelities among families, sickness, violence, and teenage experiences, all portrayed effectively by the film’s sprawling cast. They’re so into themselves and their own lives that it overshadows any real mystery. There is a sheriff trying to find Carolyn, but he’s so underused you forget he’s even there. He feels incredibly incompetent, too, which is fitting because the film delivers mixed messages as to Carolyn’s fate for most of the film. Knives and Skin also provides the strange message that teenage girls need to be mean and labeled as bitches, sluts, or a tease, or else they’re nothing and nobody. Perhaps that’s Reeder’s commentary on the modern American high school experience, but as someone who didn’t grow up in that environment, it comes off as offensive.
What saves the film are its technical elements. It’s drenched in hues of neon, which illuminate the background and highlight the characters’ faces, and it’s complemented perfectly by an electric score and colorful costuming. Some unique touches are added, too. Along with the “C” Carolyn carves into the jock’s forehead, her glasses and blood also illuminate like neon lights. What’s also interesting, and something that brings some focus back into the film, are the moments when the characters break out in song. The songs chosen for the film’s choral arrangements, like Naked Eyes’ “Promises, Promises” and The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” (or the Hilary Duff classic), gives the film surprising depth, especially when they whisper to each other, in the middle of singing, what they want to happen and what they think would happen if they went missing.
Jennifer Reeder proves she has a bold eye for filmmaking, but it doesn’t live up to its potential with her script’s lack of focus in Knives and Skin. With a poster that has the tagline, “Have you seen Carolyn Harper?” the film risks the audience asking by the end, “Who?!”
Movie Score: 2/5