Home Video Hovel: The Reflecting Skin, by David Bax
In a making-of documentary included on the new Film Movement Classics Blu-ray of 1990’s The Reflecting Skin, writer and director Philip Ridley reveals that his screenplay was originally titled, simply, American Gothic. The final title is an improvement (not least because there’s already a bunch of other stuff called American Gothic) but that initial moniker did hit the nail on the head when it comes to summing up Ridley’s transfixing, beautiful, horrific and singular vision. When our young protagonist, Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), is depicted running through a wheat field with an American flag draped across his back, it’s clear the metaphors at work here are not going to be subtle. And yet Ridley goes deeper than that image suggests–deeper than many artists are willing to go–to stare into the face of the wrathful monsters that live inside us and come to terms with the inescapable, helpless terror and confusion that spawns them.
In another bit of subtle-as-a-car-wreck symbolism, the Dove family business, a garage, has the first ‘g’ and ‘a’ missing from the sign, announcing to any visitors that they are in the presence of DOVE RAGE. Even before we see that, though, Ridley makes it clear that Seth, like so many little boys, is something of a violent psychopath. We first meet him and his friends playing a vicious prank on Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), the Doves’ reclusive and mysterious neighbor. Later, Seth becomes convinced by the cover art of a pulp novel that Dolphin is a vampire. This creates a problem for Seth when his older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), returns from World War II and strikes up a romance with the eccentric widow. Cooper’s performance, though far from naturalistic, is fitting for Ridley’s nightmare of rural isolation (as is the framing of the boy’s cherubic visage beneath a jet black bowl cut). Mortensen, meanwhile, is at his most ominously whispery and, arguably, his most beautiful. And Duncan is perfect as the stranger in a strange land, more intelligent than anyone else in this enchanting, deadly place and all the more given to suffering as a result.
By setting The Reflecting Skin in middle America in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Ridley allows himself plenty of opportunity to contrast the country’s post-War boom with the psychic destruction of a returning soldier like Cameron. The veteran is surrounded by a bounty of wheat, glowing and waving in Dick Pope’s towering cinematography, but his mind is like salted earth. The juxtaposition of death and beauty doesn’t stop there; rather, it is the entire thematic engine of the film. The embers produced by a fiery suicide float like lightning bugs and, in Cameron’s memory, the bodies of irradiated Japanese children shine like Christmas tree ornaments. Ridley’s dialogue continues the theme with blunt lines like, “It’s a short leap from kissing to killing” and lovely ones like, “Sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally.” Meanwhile, the aquatically named Dolphin decorates the walls of her home with the bones of sea creatures, almost mocking their deaths by displaying them so far from the sea.
There’s so much more to Ridley’s masterpiece that I’ll leave to the uninitiated to discover for themselves. But I can’t wrap up without making note of the quartet of greasers who roam the countryside in their imposing, shiny black car. Greaser subculture wouldn’t come into its own until a few years after the events of The Reflecting Skin. But maybe that’s because here they represent the future, the same one we all have to look forward to, prowling the horizon and waiting for its turn to snatch us up.
Film Movement’s Blu-ray is, as far as I can tell, from the same 2K transfer as 2015’s UK release by Soda Pictures. That’s no complaint, though, as the picture has all the warm glow and the bottomless darkness the film needs. Meanwhile, Nick Bicât’s score sounds great, romantic in every way the film is, from the budding affection between Cameron and Dolphin to the classical romanticism of its focus on nature and emotion and even to the proto-goth New Romantics movement of the early 1980s.
Special features include the aforementioned making-of documentary, a commentary by Ridley and a new essay by Travis Crawford and Heather Hyche.
Great review! I watched this one recently and was struck by many of the same things you’ve brought up. Something about the way the yellow grain and blue sky were filmed is nostalgic and beautiful and haunting all at once.
Some of the child acting rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the score, but other than that this is a masterpiece in my mind.