Set in the 50s, made in the 90s, worth your time now

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Reflecting Skin
RPL Film theatre
March 24-27
3.5 out of 5

The Canadian gothic drama The Reflecting Skin scored major praise from critics when it came out in 1990. Big names like Roger Ebert and Mark Kermode gushed over it. The film was favourably compared to David Lynch’s finest, thanks of the depth of its symbolism and seriously disturbing visuals.

But much like Lynch’s output, The Reflecting Skin failed to make a mark at the box office. Art ain’t fair.

The good news: a restored, high-definition print of the movie is on the art film circuit. It’s an unbeatable opportunity to appreciate this gloriously weird, beautiful flick.

The Idaho farmlands in the early 1950s weren’t a particularly enticing place. Impoverished families languished without young workers, who were in short supply after the Second World War. Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), a rambunctious eight-year old, tries to make the best of the gloomy times, in spite of his resentful mother and ineffective dad.

His misbehaviour is not wholesome.

Seth’s favourite target for sadistic pranks is Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan, About Time), a widow of ethereal beauty whose grief is all-consuming. The boy and the widow’s antagonistic relationship worsens with the arrival of Cameron (Viggo Mortensen), Seth’s older brother, who quickly becomes smitten with Dolphin.

In the background, a series of distressing events is taking place: Seth’s friends are disappearing, dead bodies begin to pile up and troubling family secrets bubble to the surface.

Directed by Philip Ridley (who never came close to reach the heights of The Reflecting Skin again), the film makes audiences uneasy through its entirety. Everything on screen is familiar but it’s not comforting: mothers without nurturing instincts, children devoid of empathy, cool kids for whom danger is more than a pose. Much like in Blue Velvet, normalcy is skin deep and evil is always too near the surface.

Thanks to The Reflecting Skin’s 1950’s setting, the film hasn’t aged. I went in blind and was only clued in to how old this movie was by Lindsay Duncan’s flawless skin (she’s 65 now). And, of course, Viggo looked unusually young.

Outside a reveal at the end, there is no clear villain in The Reflecting Skin. If nothing else, religion — in all its manifestations — is the antagonist force: the characters tend to double down on god-awful decisions based on their sets of beliefs.

The Reflecting Skin’s gilded cinematography — with Crossfield, Alberta standing in for Idaho — is mind-blowing and comes courtesy of Dick Pope, who went on to become Mike Leigh’s go-to cinematographer and has since been nominated for two Oscars (Mr. Turner and The Illusionist). You can appreciate him sharpening his skills here: the entire movie looks golden and the violence contrasts so harshly with the environment they reverberate longer. Now a common approach (think Fargo), in 1990 it was quite bold.

The film’s lyricism is reminiscent of Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven is an obvious inspiration), but it never takes over.

Regardless of its big themes, trouble often comes down to the fact Seth lacks role models and access to information. The kid fills in the many blanks in his reality using myths, which in turn inform his actions.

Sounds a little too familiar.