The Reflecting Skin opens with a scene of three boys blowing a frog to smithereens on a desolate country road. It’s a fitting image for a film that deals with the infinite cruelties of the natural world, and those that families and lovers inflict upon each other.
Set sometime in the 1950s, the film follows Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper), a young boy living with his family in an isolated corner of rural Idaho (actually Crossfield, Alberta) where they operate the town’s lone gas station. Seth’s family is ravaged with secret traumas: Seth’s mother (Sheila Moore) tortures Seth as punishment for any perceived misdeeds, while his father Luke (Duncan Fraser) is closeted and self-hating as a result. This is a grim landscape indeed, where gangs of sinister teens roam the countryside in a black Cadillac, children disappear only to be found drowned, and ossified fetuses appear in empty barns. When Seth’s older brother Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) returns from military service somewhere in the Pacific, it’s a great relief to Seth, who is also developing suspicions about his neighbour, a decidedly weird widow with the even more improbable name of Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan). Seth is convinced Dolphin is a vampire, and to his horror, she and Cameron meet and begin falling in love. Then things get really weird.
Writer/director Philip Ridley became obsessed with Alberta’s golden wheat fields as the stand-in location for the Reflecting Skin’s rural American Gothic landscapes, and in many ways the province is the film’s true star, balancing the story’s often nightmarish surrealism with a glorious and often incongruously beautiful backdrop. And while Seth’s story is an utter tragedy on paper, freighted with grief and violence, the dialogue and Ridley’s direction lend a strange and ineffable tone that sometimes borders on comedic. Roger Ebert summed it up best when he described the film as Lynchian, but maybe better: “Horrible and funny in equal measure.” The Reflecting Skin is a beautiful and confounding experience, one that is not easily digested nor forgotten