“Sometimes horrible things happen quite naturally.”
“It’s all so horrible, you know, the nightmare of childhood. And it only gets worse. One day you’ll wake up, and you’ll be past it. Your beautiful skin will wrinkle and shrivel up. You’ll lose your hair, your sight, your memory. Your blood will thicken, teeth turn yellow and loose. You will start to stink and fart, and all your friends will be dead. You’ll succumb to arthritis, angina, senile dementia. You’ll piss yourself, shit yourself, drool at the mouth. Just pray that when this happens, you’ve got someone to love you. Because if you’re loved, you’ll still be young.”
British playwright and occasional film director Philip Ridley’s first picture, The Reflecting Skin, is a wickedly devious bait and switch. It opens downright beautifully with seemingly precious eight-year-old Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) walking through an unnaturally radiant golden field of wheat carrying a huge frog to his friends, Eben (Codie Lucas Wilbee) and Kim (Evan Hall), who are waiting for him on the side of a rural dirt road. The idyllic scene, which could be straight from a Norman Rockwell or Edward Hopper painting or maybe even a Mark Twain novel, immediately takes a seriously twisted turn when one of them sticks a straw in the frog’s butt and inflates it. The tone is set: as Ridley himself admitted, “the opening of the film deliberately dupes you into thinking you’re going to watch Little House on the Prairie, and then it suddenly becomes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with reptiles” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/). Ummm, yeah.
Poor Seth: his name rhymes with death, which is all around him and it’s tearing his world apart—he doesn’t even realize it. The adults in his life seem incapable of explaining any of it to him. He lives in a crumbling old farm house next to the gas station that his henpecked father, Luke (Duncan Fraser), operates in an isolated prairie town somewhere in Idaho (a fact I picked up from a state trooper’s uniform) in the 1950s. Maybe the town has seen better days, but probably not. A group of handsome greasers in a big black Cadillac comes into the station for a fill up. The creepy driver (Jason Wolfe) asks Seth a few weird questions and promises to see him soon before driving away.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
The aforementioned frog was the unfortunate pawn in an awful prank involving one of the Doves’ neighbors, a glum and taciturn English widow with the spectacular name Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth’s mother, Ruth (Sheila Moore), a raving termagant obsessed with the smell of gasoline in her house, makes him go apologize to her. It’s a weird exchange: Dolphin relates that she used to burn cats when she was little and shows Seth a box containing her dead husband’s teeth, hair, and cologne before she breaks down, sending Seth running away with a harpoon. Soon after, Eben disappears. Seth blames Dolphin, whom he concludes is a vampire in part because she looks like the one on the cover of a pulp novel his father is reading. The police, particularly cynical Sheriff Ticker (Robert Koons), think otherwise: they blame Luke because of a past transgression. Feeling backed into a corner, Luke eventually immerses himself in gasoline and sets himself on fire.
Seth’s older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), comes home from the military, where he’s serving on a mission in the Pacific. Cameron meets Dolphin at the cemetery—a spark ignites, and they start spending time together. Seth is horrified when his brother tells him he’s sick: he’s losing weight, his hair is falling out, and something is going on with his teeth. Seth again blames Dolphin, who he thinks is turning Cameron into a vampire (although Cameron reveals what’s really going on when he breaks out a photo of a Japanese baby whose skin turned silver from an atomic bomb). After catching an intimate moment while spying on the budding lovebirds, Seth observes the guys in the Cadillac snatch Kim.
“Innocence can be hell,” is the last thing Dolphin says to Seth before she accepts a ride into town from the black Cadillac.
The Reflecting Skin makes a simple point: children will use their imagination to fill in the blanks of what they don’t understand. The story is told through Seth’s eyes, and his conclusions are often bizzare but he arrives at them using what little he has to work with (that whole deal with the fetus he finds in a barn and rationalizes is Eben—yuck!). As Ridley explained, “it’s a kind of remembered fantasy of childhood; it’s being told by an unreliable, possibly psychotic narrator; objects are used symbolically; there’s this huge kind of nightmare journey through one mythical childhood” (http://thepeoplesmovies.com/2015/12/the-reflecting-skin-philip-ridley-interview/).
The way he illustrates his point is fascinating. Everything about the story is horrible. With an approach worthy of David Lynch, Ridley takes a hodgepodge of characters—vampires, religious zealots, suspicious small town law men—and throws them into this weird mix of the macabre, sexual perversion, punishment, and subtle dark humor. His use of symbolism is liberal to say the least. The story is meticulously plotted: every character, scene, and little event is in here for a reason.
This is all underneath Dick Pope’s gorgeous cinematography, which is loaded with vibrant colors and a beautifully fine-tuned attention to detail: the vastness of the wheat fields, the crazy black hair of both brothers, the flies that are always present. Nearly 30 years on, The Reflecting Skin still looks arresting; in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful looking movies I’ve ever seen. Nick Bicât’s heavy and haunting baroque-inspired score is a perfect fit. The overall result is wonderfully dreamy and surreal, yet we definitely sympathize with Seth—probably because we all know that childhood does in fact suck. He’s grounded in reality.
I would be remiss not to mention the acting, which is all around superb. I doubt this film would work with lesser talent.
A dearly departed old friend of mine introduced me to The Reflecting Skin in 1993 or 1994. I’ve never had an opportunity to see it on the big screen, which is a pity because this is one film clearly meant to be seen in a theater. For years, I had a shitty VHS copy and recently found it on DVD. It’s not an easy film to find, but it’s totally worth the effort.
(Home via DVD) A+