Viewed: From the Couch
About ten years ago I was able to spend some time living down the street from one of the better video stores I've ever come across. Having worked at a couple of video stores in the early and mid 90s, I always appreciate a good one and felt at home spending spare time browsing the aisles looking for treasure. So it was at Northampton's Pleasant Street Video that I stumbled across this peculiar film, The Reflective Skin. It was the cover that did it for me -- an odd looking boy with a harpoon across his lap and the jaws of some large fish mounted ominously behind him -- very gothic and creepy looking. And the title is one that promises you the film is going to be anything but dumb. In the early and mid 90s I was absorbing films at a rate that I doubt I will ever match, so I didn't take much for me to bring a movie home with me. Ah yes, the 90s, when independent film had yet to succumb to a sissy-pants formula and your evening's entertainment could be determined by a good video cover. Those were indeed the days.
Until today, that cover and name were the only things I remembered about the film aside from a gruesome suicide that ended with a burning gas station and some images of a boy running through across a large open field with a big blue sky overhead. I remember lying on my bed and putting the film on, but earlier that evening a guy stopped by the house and sold me some mushrooms for that following afternoon's planned trip to the mall to watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Well, a good portion of those magical mushrooms were consumed that night and The Reflective Skin was used as a means to chill out, as the kids like to say. That would be the last I'd thought about the film until a few weeks ago when I was turned on to the excellent blog that the folks behind the upcoming Where the Wild Things Are are running. They made reference to the film Paperhouse -- another film I hadn't thought about since 10 years ago. But this one I do remember as I used to have a copy of it on one of those 8 hour vcr tapes along with three or four other films. Paperhouse also features young kids, a fire and shots of rolling hills and big skies -- but it wasn't the film I had watched that night up in the attic bedroom. No... That was some movie with a different creepy kid on the cover... Something Skin? Thanks should go to, IMDb, for cracking another mystery and helping this old man's fuzzy memories become a whole lot clearer.
As it turns out, The Reflecting Skin doesn't lie in complete obscurity, only next to it. The writer/director Philip Ridley also wrote The Krays, a memorable, well received, violent British gangster film that I also had on one of those 8 hour tapes when I was in high school -- meaning it got a fair amount of play on cable back in the day. Both films came out in 1990 and that seemed to be the year for Philip Ridley. Since then he's only written two other films, one of which he directed. But from the sound of his bio he may have been keeping busy writing novels and plays. The film also features the a young Viggo Mortensen in his first starring role, so I'm sure his fan club holds the film in high regard.
The real star is 9 year old Seth Dove, played by newcomer Jeremy Cooper. The film opens up on Seth and his two buddies playing a prank on their neighbor, a creepy (everyone in this film is creepy, by the way) widow whom Seth becomes convinced is a vampire, by filling a big toad with air by sticking a straw up its rear end and shooting it with a slingshot, causing the neighbor lady to get a face full of frog guts. Yeah, that old gag. The seems to take place in the 50's when young scamps with slingshots cause mischief and give their neighbors headaches. But Dennis the Menace this is not. And Seth's parents are no Ozzie and Harriet. They run a gas station out in the middle of nowhere, a job his mother seems to detest as she is first seen in the middle of a fit over being unable to escape the smell of gasoline. Seth remarks early on that all he has to do is look at his mom and she'll break down crying. His father isn't much better off, he's a meek shell of a man, but at least he's kind to Seth and doesn't force water down his throat until he pisses himself like his mom does.
There are a fair amount of odd juxtapositions going on in The Reflecting Skin. You're never told here exactly in the US the film is taking place but by the amount of dusty, flat terrain and the amber waves of grain you get the impression that we're not far away from the badlands (the movie was filmed in Alberta, Canada). Yet water plays a major theme in the film. Seth's father is always going on about the importance of water (lest he "turn into dust"), his brother is in the military stationed on an island in the Pacific, the creepy widow's house (her name is Dolphin Blue, naturally) is where we find that harpoon and those jaws, the first murder victim is found floating in water -- and in the film's most bizarre scene a couple of chirping ladies walk by Seth carrying a dead seagull. All of the four elements play an important role in the film but the mysteries are all tied in some way or another to water.
When Seth discovers one of his friends floating in his family's pool of drinking water, the sheriff's deputy immediately starts pointing a finger at Seth's father. It turns out there was an incident with a young boy some years ago and the threat of this secret getting out is too much for him to bear. Seth watched as his father takes his own life in a gruesome and destructive manner involving a gas pump and a stubborn book of matches. But the murders don't stop after his death and when Seth's brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) comes home things don't get any better for his family. Soon Seth's other friend shows up dead by the side of the road and because the one-eyed, one handed sheriff was so sure it was Seth's father, the only solution the townspeople can accept is that he's somehow still alive.
Any hopes for Cameron being the clear-headed salvation for the family are immediately dashed as he tosses the American flag that greets him into the dirt and quickly pushes Seth aside in an effort to keep miserable company with Dolphin Blue. Viggo is particularly heart-breaking in his portrayal of the cold, unsympathetic brother. Cameron is just as lonely as everyone else in the town and, as the story goes, finding personal relief is more important than the problems of some stupid 9 year old. Even if that 9 year old might know who's killing the kids in town. Cameron's obliviousness reaches great absurdity when he gets annoyed with Seth's insistence and asks him, "Why aren't you off playing with your friends?" To which Seth responds quite matter-of-factly, "All my friends are dead." Just another day at the little house on the prairie.
The film could easily be looked at as a disturbing rebuttal to the warm fuzzies of The Little House on the Prairie. Surely that show was given exposure overseas in the 1980s and The Reflecting Skin could very well be the British response. It's always interesting to see Americana from a contemporary European point of view, but the Dove family may as well live on Mars. It's in this bizarro world that the film works - if it were shooting for Eugene O'Neil the film would be laughable. Instead, it goes for the kind of dark and violent America you see in David Lynch's work (Roth reprotedly described his movie as "Blue Velvet with children") and even (gulp) Tideland. In fact, the power of a child's innocence as a coping mechanism is as much at the heart of The Reflecting Skin as it is Gilliam's far more off-putting and unfocused Tideland. There's a particularly cutting moment following the suicide of Seth's father. The gas station is ablaze and we're looking down upon Seth in the glow of the fire and a smile starts to form on his face as he becomes enchanted by the glowing embers flying through the night like lightning bugs. And in an effort to make the movie seem somewhat accessible (it is, I swear!) I won't get into the fetus Seth adopts like a precious handed down toy doll.
The Reflecting Skin isn't a movie with broad appeal. I'm sure certain people will decide they'd rather see something else at about the five minute mark when the lady gets sprayed with frog guts. But the film is not overly bleak or insistent with it's dark subject matter, it's actually quite poetic. A lot of this is due to having the always remarkable Dick Pope behind the camera. If there's anyone who knows how to make dark material approachable it's the guy who's shot two decade's worth of Mike Leigh films. But I don't think Pope has ever shot a movie quite like this one. It's a rare opportunity to see him work outside of the U.K. and he makes the fields, skies and frosty breath of Alberta, Canada a wonder to behold. Equal parts attractively dreamy and foreboding, The Reflecting Skin is a lost treasure of early 90's cinematic weirdness. If you give it a chance it's a strangely affecting film, far more personal that you would expect and one that sticks with you.
Great trailer below, but beware there are some big spoilers in there.
And someone's gone and put all of Viggo's scenes on youtube...