From 1990's "The Reflecting Skin."

The Reflecting Skin October 12, 2021

DIRECTED BY

Philip Ridley

STARRING

Viggo Mortensen
Lindsay Duncan
Jeremy Cooper

 

RATED

R

RELEASED IN

1990

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 35 Mins.

P

hilip Ridley’s escalatingly horrifying coming-of-age movie The Reflecting Skin (1990) is set sometime in the 1950s, in an overwhelmingly isolated blot of midwestern land engulfed by wheat. Enhanced by the shine of the grain against the sun, this seemingly endless stretch of nothing appears stuck in perpetual semi-golden hour — that magical, short-lived window either after sunrise or before

sunset that douses everything in a god-kissed yellow. Golden hour's beauty is enhanced by its transience; its short-livedness makes it feel like a fleeting sign from above begging for recognition. But the constance of a flaxen glow in The Reflecting Skin — interrupted only at night, when the land looks overwashed in black water — has an uncanny effect. It makes everything feel a little unreal — a little purgatorial. “It’s ugly here,” a visitor puts it more plainly. 

 

We see the world through a young boy's eyes in The Reflecting Skin. He’s named Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), and he’s the 8-year-old son of Ruth and Luke (Sheila Moore and Duncan Fraser), an extremely-unhappily married couple that runs a gas station. Dad, closeted and dogged by probably true rumors of a gay dalliance as a teen, is reserved to the point of being a ghost. Mom, tormented not just by her husband’s inwardness but the general monotony of her life, takes it out on her son. Uncomfortable at home, Seth tries to get out of the house as much as he can; usually he makes trouble with his best friends Eben and Kim (Codie Lucas Wilbee and Evan Hall) to pass the time. The Reflecting Skin opens with this bratty trio slingshotting a basketball-sized frog to death (the guts explode in a passerby’s face). Later, they break into a neighbor’s house and ruin most of their stuff simply because they’re under the impression they’re hiding a dark secret and deserve it. 

 

The Reflecting Skin has two ways of seeing. It vividly evokes the perspective of Seth, whose fears and general views of the world are, authentically for that age, childishly fantastical. He seriously believes that his neighbor, a widow named Dolphin Blue (a great Lindsay Duncan), is a vampire. (There has been a series of unexplained killings in the area lately; he holds her responsible.) And when Seth’s father dies horrifically mid-movie, Seth later describes the incident not with sadness tugging at his throat but with wonder, like he was excitedly recounting his favorite page of a recent comic book. 

 

But even though The Reflecting Skin primarily puts us in the mind of its acting-out child protagonist, Ridley makes us acutely aware of the miseries and repressions that are right in front of Seth but which are essentially hidden to him because of his naïveté: his mother and father’s drowning depression; Dolphin’s immense grieving for her husband (he died by suicide years ago); the ambivalence Seth’s brother, a WWII veteran (Viggo Mortensen), exhibits when he returns home to visit; the homophobia stopping-by police officers cruelly hurl like a whip as they interrogate Luke early in the film. The movie’s bifurcated ambition — to accurately convey Seth’s young and warped perspective without minimizing the adult hurt around him — is tricky. But it never falters. These simultaneously running visions of the world don’t clash — they harmonize, and the tune they create unsettles. 

 

From Seth’s moon-eyed vantage point, he’s experiencing something out of a horror movie. The vampire next door is killing people, and no one believes me! While it’s true that The Reflecting Skin is a horror movie, it’s not one like that. What’s terrifying about it isn’t confined to fantasy. In Ridley’s vision, everyday disappointments and tragedies when piled on top of each other can form quotidian equivalents of horror films. And most of them are actually quite a bit scarier than a vampire on the loose. The latter scenario is too easy, too plainly conquerable, whereas the ones seen here are so widespread and hard to “defeat” that the horror lies in having to endure them, with no one completely sure how to soothe their pains indefinitely. 

 

In The Reflecting Skin, the final scare isn’t rooted in a vindication of Seth’s anxieties, but how his childish notions of the world prove destructive in tangible ways he didn’t know were possible because of his age. He is, in effect, unwittingly responsible for placing the final straw that breaks his innocence. The ending of the movie promises more horror to come: he’ll have to live with the consequences of his juvenile decision-making for the rest of his life. A vampire living next door becomes a pleasant alternative to a lifetime of wishing something could be taken back. A