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Film Review: The Skin of the Teeth
A Brutal Interrogation
With the rise of dating apps and social media, it becomes easy to obscure or hide certain parts of yourself in the name of finding romantic love or sexual fulfillment. All it takes is for the user to use the best pictures they have or exaggerate certain information about themselves to be as desirable to as wide a selection of romantic prospects as possible. While this sort of deception can be problematic, it's when the person is forced to come clean or truly reveal themselves that they threaten to completely destroy everything in the process. However, when opening oneself up, something that's even more threatening is to not go far enough, which is a matter that this film reflects and has issues conveying.
Matthew Wollin's The Skin of the Teeth is a thriller about a young gay man named Josef (Pascal Arquimedes) who goes over to the apartment of an older man named John (Donal Brophy) for a date night. After taking a pill in John's bedroom, Josef starts to find reality slipping and his ability to understand what's going on compounded when he's arrested for allegedly murdering John. Now he's forced to deal with two boxer-clad police detectives (Tom Rizzuto and Chuja Seo), a mask-wearing public defender (also Chuja Seo), and all kinds of odd figures who come in and out of the interrogation room Josef spends most of the movie to extract information about him and decide whether or not he'll be charged for murder.
The film, which has been making rounds at various festivals including the Twin Cities Film Festival and Outfest, is described by director Wollin as "a fever dream. A drunken, dangerous night that careens from place to place before depositing you safely back into bed." Throughout the film, we're constantly forced to question how much of what we're seeing on screen is either the effects of that pill Josef took, a dream, or a deeper symbolic image of our protagonist and the setting he finds himself in. We're left to wonder how much of the interrogation is real, whether Josef is giving the right information to the detectives' invasive questioning, or if there's something deeper going on. Maybe Josef is sleeping this all off in John's apartment, or maybe he's truly guilty of murder and is trying to rationalize it either through drug use or by imagining there's something larger and more sinister going on.
The issue that The Skin of the Teeth has is that, while all of these ideas are reasonable and worth exploring, especially through the perspective of an LGBTQ person of color, the film never really earns the viewer's attention or dedication to seeing the story through. It asks you to be swept along with Josef's story, but it never really gives a reason for us to become involved or understand how odd the situation is. It's one thing for Josef to be questioned about his job and his role in the bedroom, but the film never really offers the chance to see Josef removed from the situation. You're forced to construct your own idea of who the character is solely through the dialogue-heavy scenes, but a lot of it is merely fed to the viewer instead of being shown.
This also isn't helped that the film is very restricted in its actions and set pieces. The majority of the film is in two sets: John's apartment and the interrogation room. Both sets are very bleak and cold, and the framing suggests they are quite similar with how they're both supposed to be private spaces with openings for voyeurs to peak in. However, because the film spends so much time in these spaces and with little change in them, it becomes hard to really get involved or suss out what's real or not. We have to be told certain things about the characters, and we're not allowed to really figure things out for ourselves. There are no flashbacks, cutaways, montages, or anything that can allow us to guess whether or not Josef is being entirely truthful or if his memory is faulty due to drug use.
It also has the issue that many of the symbols and subtext are pretty surface level and lacking in as much depth as intended. The film is about Josef coming to terms with who he is, so he spends more than half of it in a police interrogation room being asked who he is by strangers. A lawyer comes in to help Josef's case but is too similar to one of the detectives who previously sexually harassed him (and is played by the same actress to add more Bergman-esque attempts at surreal film making), so she is wearing a fox mask to make her seem cunning and potentially distrustful. Josef unleashes the one bit of privilege he has that can save him, and then is drawn to put on a white mask that's floating in the corner of the room. It's really not that difficult to understand what a lot of the images in the movie mean, and the drawn-out nature of the film makes it just seem like the viewer has to patiently twiddle their thumbs as they wait for the film to move on.
But all of this is not to say The Skin of the Teeth is a terrible movie. It certainly is well-made for a film that was filmed in thirteen days and had a low budget, and the actors are all doing a decent job with the material. The ideas and attempted message are relevant, and there has to be some commendation in that. However, The Skin of the Teeth doesn't do as much as it could, nor does it take as much risks with the subject matter. It's trying to present a film about an LGBTQ person of color dealing with voyeurism, police brutality, privilege and prejudice, and more, but it presents the barest effort to tackle these subjects or present images with some real depth and complexity to them. It feels like the film that could have said and done more really only went skin-deep, and it's unfortunate that there couldn't be more blood drawn from such a promising film.
The Skin of the Teeth will premiere in New York City at Cinema Village on May 10.
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