Review: Knives and Skin Is a Chicago-made Surreal Coming of Age Tale

Not to be confused with Knives Out, though sharing some thematic DNA with Rian Johnson’s earlier film, Brick, Knives and Skin is a stylized, teen noir meditation on suburban stagnation, Midwestern ennui, and the tiny violences that develop from unchallenged gender norms and outdated familial expectations.

Written and directed by Jennifer Reeder (Signature Move), the film has strong Chicago ties. Reeder is an SAIC grad who currently teaches at UIC; the film was produced by Newcity’s production arm, the Chicago Film Project, led by Brian and Jan Hieggelke, and is anchored by a cast of Steppenwolf veterans and young Chicago talent.

Knives and Skin
Image courtesy of IFC Films

Centering around the disappearance and death of high school student Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), Knives and Skin positions itself early on as a mystery a la Twin Peaks—but as Reeder’s feature develops, it becomes clear that the movie is not concerned with the who or why in relation to the tragedy. In fact, even though we are shown the person mostly responsible for Carolyn’s death, the story is more concerned about how the death affects the small town of Big River (looking a lot like Northwest Indiana), and the interior lives and interpersonal relationships of its inhabitants.

Just as the death of Emmy Rossum in Mystic River serves as a backdrop for Eastwood to explore masculine trauma and the consequences of silence, Knives and Skin uses death to develop a dark-night-of-the-soul narrative for Carolyn’s classmates and their parents.

The heartbeat of the film is young Joanna (Grace Smith); she was friends with Carolyn in middle school, but the two grew apart. She wears retro, homemade shirts with the names of feminist icons and liberal colleges ironed on, and wades through the pain of loss in much the same way as Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which is to say sometimes maturely and sometimes dangerously, complete with an uncomfortable would-be-romance with a youngish substitute teacher. Elsewhere, her relationship with her mother, played by the great Audrey Francis, is satisfyingly strained, as are her exchanges with her unemployed, part-time clown father played with easy sadness by Tim Hopper.

The production design (Adri Siriwatt) and photography (Christopher Rejano) call to mind It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s supernatural ode to the horror of sexual awakening; though not an out and out “scary movie,” Knives and Skin paints modern suburbia with equal unease—and the film leans into some weird supernatural tics, such as a fresh wound glowing red, the dead girl’s glasses beaming brightly in a locker like a beacon, and a singing corpse adding narration to a late-in-film montage.

Reeder spends substantial time focused on bodies and their oddities—Audrey Francis’ Lynn is a seamstress and manicurist, wanting to trim her daughter’s “gross” nails, there’s a monologue about menstrual blood and how difficult it is to get out of anything, a scene where the dead girl’s mother (Kate Arrington) aggressively sniffs the girl’s boyfriend (Ty Olwin) for her daughter’s scent, and a bit where two secret lovers give one another trinkets they’ve kept hidden inside themselves, each present noticeably wet when exchanged.

Not everything lands during the 111-minute runtime; it’s a tricky tone to balance and get right. Sometimes Knives and Skin is aiming for grim satire, as when the high school principal buys used underwear from Joanna, offering a gas card for payment. “Cash only,” she replies. At other times the film is unabashedly sincere, as when one of the high schoolers is up on the roof, his classmates fearing suicide, until he assures them he’s only up there for the view. He needs to see the highway, he says, so he knows there’s “a way out of this place.” Both of these moments stick out in an odd way, not quite at home with their surrounding material.

But when style and substance mix together in equal measure, the film claims a charming uniqueness, balancing weighty themes like death, grief, consent, addiction, and marital deterioration with Reeder’s confidently weird vision, making Knives and Skin a subversive coming-of-age tale with a lot on its mind.

Knives and Skin opens Friday, December 13, at the Music Box Theatre.

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Matthew Nerber
Matthew Nerber

Matthew Nerber is a performer and theater artist in Chicago, and a former literary contributor with the Generation, the University at Buffalo’s longest running alternative newspaper. When not seeing or making theater, Matthew can be found at the Music Box or expanding his classic rock vinyl collection. He is a 2019 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center.