Saturday, August 24, 2013

#163: The Reflecting Skin (Philip Ridley, 1990)

Philip Ridley makes James Franco look like an underachiever. A successful painter, novelist, children's book author, playwright, screenwriter, and film director before he turned thirty, he's also dabbled in songwriting and radio production. He's the kind of guy who makes an unsuccessful guy like me a little bit sick. The London-born Ridley now mostly splits his time between writing children's books and creating plays for the London stage, but another film is always possible. The Reflecting Skin, Ridley's debut feature as writer/director following two short films and a screenwriting credit for the Peter Medak gangster film The Krays, is a seriously flawed but fascinating and deeply strange movie.
A British/Canadian coproduction filmed in Canada, The Reflecting Skin takes place in a 1950s American Midwest that bears little resemblance to the 1950s or the American Midwest. This is instead an outsider's view of modern American mythology and iconography and a dry, hallucinatory nightmare fairy tale. The shots of the landscape and the characters' place within it pulse with menace and natural beauty, but the narrative and some of the performances have trouble keeping up. This is a precocious young man's film, long on energy, ambition, and pretension and short on subtlety and restraint.
The film focuses on a young boy, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), a troubled child in a rural area who lives with two functional but insane parents, the harsh, nervous, and angry taskmaster Ruth (Sheila Moore) and the kindly yet detached and disconnected Luke (Duncan Fraser), who spends most of his time reading a pulp novel about vampires and hiding a family secret about his sexuality. Luke runs a gas station where Seth does most of the work, while Ruth complains about how much she hates the smell of gasoline and greasy car parts. Their neighbor is a bizarre British widow, the unfortunately named Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Surely someone must have advised Ridley against the name Dolphin Blue. Please tell me someone tried.
When a series of murders plagues the region, Luke's past comes back to bite him, and a family crisis brings Seth's older brother, WWII veteran Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), back to town. Seth is convinced Dolphin is a vampire and is somehow responsible for the deaths of the local children. Meanwhile, a spooky black car full of troubling young men wanders the back roads, Cameron begins a relationship with Dolphin, and a baby's corpse found in a barn becomes a figure of guidance for Seth. Yeah, this is weird stuff, and it's even weirder on screen than it is in this synopsis.
Sometimes, that weirdness is a little too weird for the film's own good, like Ridley is forcing its eccentricities instead of letting them occur naturally, but more often the weirdness is just right, an integral part of The Reflecting Skin's strange daylight gothic atmosphere. The movie also gets a lift 40 minutes into the running time when Viggo Mortensen appears. A relatively unknown actor at this early stage in his career, he nevertheless commands the viewer's attention the second he appears. He's a charismatic yet subtle actor, capable of doing a lot with a little, and his skills are already in place here. The beautiful and menacing rural landscape is a fully developed character of its own, and Ridley was fortunate to have Dick Pope as his cinematographer. Pope, the cinematographer on every Mike Leigh film since Life Is Sweet and a recent go-to guy for Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles, Bernie), is the film's secret weapon. Capturing the deep blues, reds, and yellows of the rural sky, sun, wheat fields, dirt roads, automobiles, homes, and people, Pope calls to mind Days of Heaven-era Terrence Malick and the great sun-baked landscapes of Australian and New Zealand films of the early 1970s-early 1990s, albeit on a lower budget. Any fanatic Mike Leigh fan knows that his films don't get as much credit for visual composition as they deserve, and Pope has done a remarkable but subtle job photographing that composition. When most of a film's horror and menace takes place in the daylight, that film requires a great cinematographer, and Ridley got one with Pope.
Unfortunately, the film has some serious problems. Ridley has a tendency to err on the side of preciousness and pretension, as you may have guessed from Dolphin Blue. The metaphor of the title is forced in a later scene, and the film's final scene is so misguided and pompous that it becomes unintentional comedy, though Pope shoots it beautifully. I hate to pick on a child, but Jeremy Cooper's performance is inconsistent, and he's given some huge dramatic moments that magnify his limitations. He's very good in some scenes, but he seriously damages others with flat, amateurish line readings and overemoting.
Despite these criticisms, I applaud The Reflecting Skin for its strangeness, ambition, and visual beauty, and its ability to make the daylight seem foreboding. The black car full of young men made my hair stand on end, and the atmosphere was genuinely chilling. If you're the kind of viewer who can forgive ambitious, low-budget work for some substantial flaws, I think you'll get something out of this one.

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