With its hallucinatory atmosphere and jet-black vision of youth in revolt, “Knives and Skin" suggests “Twin Peaks” crossed with “Heathers." But the feature, from writer-director Jennifer Reeder, is more reinvention than homage, and it’s suffused with a sharply subversive, feminist energy all its own.
Central to Reeder’s neon-soaked mystery (which has a five-day engagement at the Brattle starting this Friday), is Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley), a high school girl whose disappearance plunges her small Midwestern town into chaos, especially after it becomes clear she’s not coming home.
To Reeder, a prolific short-film director and academic whose works have explored the stranger nuances of female experience, Carolyn was always a symbolic figure.
“We’re a culture obsessed with youth and beauty among young women, but we also can’t stand young, beautiful women," explains Reeder, speaking by phone. “We celebrate the brutality that they suffer, whether it’s high-heeled shoes, constant dieting, or false eyelashes, even just the general social pressure of staying young and beautiful."
Carolyn’s fate radicalizes the young women of her high school, who push back against misogynistic peers and professors. “Teenagers are the ones who see through the fantastical, pink haze that is the rest of the film,” explains Reeder. “Carolyn’s disappearance becomes what allows everyone to connect with their most real self and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
Q. When did you start making this movie?
A. I started writing in 2016. I put it down for a year to make another feature-length film, “Signature Move,” which I directed but didn’t write. In that time, I overhauled the entire script. It was before #MeToo broke wide open, but I’d made a bunch of short films leading up to “Knives and Skin” that dealt directly with the experiences of girls and women, with violations around consent. It’s something I experienced as a young person, and I’m constantly seeing young women still experiencing something that hasn’t been fixed, in a daily, microaggressive way.
Q. “Knives and Skin” has drawn comparisons to the work of David Lynch, especially “Twin Peaks.” But unlike Laura Palmer, the dead girl at the core of “Peaks,” yours doesn’t exactly stay dead. It feels like a moment for the genre that Carolyn Harper still has a form of agency not typically afforded to dead girls in mysteries.
A. I wanted to lean into that problematic trope instead of working around it, to figure out how I could make a feminist film with a dead girl at its center, who you barely get to know. I wanted to give her will and agency. You said it. She’s a dead girl who won’t stay dead, but she’s not exactly a zombie and not exactly a ghost. She can sing, and she moves around. It’s ridiculous when I explain it out loud, but she’s a very emblematic character, and it’s important she has that agency.
Q. Why do you think that trope is so popular?
A. A beautiful dead girl is, for so many people, emblematic of the most horrific event one could experience. In particular, a pretty, blonde, young white girl. Carolyn Harper was always going to be the one martyred in this film, because of how we put that image on a pedestal and value it. The idea of losing it seems like such a tragedy, even though we know there are so many more women of color who go missing on a daily basis. Those young women’s stories are never told. They’re ignored.
Q. One character’s seen holding a book titled “Blood Under the Skin: A Suffragette History,” and that central image’s a potent one in the film, including with its title. What do you mean by all this discussion of blood, knives, and skin?
A. It’s two things: knives and skin, and the symbol of blood. I love what so many female writer-directors are doing recently with horror and thriller. Women have a relationship with fear from a very young age. We’re taught to be fearful. We’re taught that we’re prey. And women also have a very constant and specific relationship with blood. It’s totally biological, completely normal, but it is consistent, regular, and messy. Taking on the symbol of blood, and women in blood, feels on the one hand completely organic but also of the horror-thriller genre.
My favorite horror-movie image of all time is the end of [Brian de Palma’s] “Carrie,” her in that pretty pink prom dress covered in blood. It’s such a paradoxical image, that hyper-femininity and the grotesque along with it. Very powerful, especially because she’s burning the school down.
The title comes from these two objects in our lives. Knives can be a common tool but also a weapon. Skin is something we all have, but how we refer to it — as intimacy, as thick skin/thin skin, as what protects us from our guts falling out all over the sidewalk but also a very vulnerable organ — there’s something to that. They’re tools of strength that can also be vulnerable.
Q. One of Carolyn’s friends eventually confronts a sexist football jock, repeating “You treat girls like [expletive]" until it becomes a mantra. It feels important that the men of this story are held accountable.
A. We don’t live in a culture that pulls men aside and says, ‘You treat girls like [expletive],” that allows them to unpack what that really means and how they can do better. We live in a culture that imagines people are mind-readers, and that everyone is a malicious jerk, which is just not the case. We make a lot of assumptions for people’s behavior instead of sitting them down and saying, ‘You need to change your behavior, or you’re going to be excommunicated by 50 percent of the population.’
Q. The atmosphere of your film feels emblematic as well, of this culture of images high schoolers are subjected to through marketing and social media, all these ideas and symbols that look cool but are impossible to authentically live inside of.
A. It felt important that this film hover just above reality but still be grounded in the truth of people’s lived, daily lives. Something like “Twin Peaks” suggests a more palpable parallel world, going through weird space-time portals, living in dream spaces. I wanted the atmosphere of the film to be what carried its fantastical, otherworldly element, but I wanted the whole thing to be grounded in a world we know.
Q. Young women drive change in “Knives and Skin.” What advice would you give to aspiring, non-male artists trying to make their way in an industry that’s been historically stacked against them?
A. I came to the house of filmmaking by kicking in the basement door. I was not invited up the front steps. But it doesn’t matter how you get into the house. Just get in, and stay there. Coming in through the basement can be exhausting but, once you’re there, they can’t get rid of you.