Judge Clark Douglas prefers to be in his skin.
She hated her own life, so she took someone else's.
In Her Skin is striking example of a film that manages to undermine its effectiveness considerably simply by arranging its pieces in the wrong order. Rarely have I seen a movie so irreversibly damaged by its own gimmicky structure; one wonders why writer/director Simone North felt the need to tell the story in the manner that she did.
The film gives itself significant problems from the opening frames by making a simple declaration: "This is a true story." It's not "based on a true story" or "inspired by a true story" or "suggested by a true story." By making such a strong assertion, the film practically invites viewers to raise their eyebrows every time it slips into sensationalism or takes considerable dramatic license (which it does on a regular basis).
As for the story: In Her Skin (originally given the more intriguing title I Am You) details the murder of a 15-year-old Australian girl named Rachel Barber (Kate Bell, The Pacific). During the first portion of the film, we follow Kate's mother (Miranda Otto, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and father (Guy Pearce, The King's Speech) as they attempt to figure out why their daughter has disappeared. During the second portion of the film, we spend some time with Rachel's envious, overweight neighbor Caroline Reid (Ruth Bradley, Flyboys) as she begins hatching a plot that will lead to Rachel's murder. In the third section of the film, we follow Rachel up until the moment of her death.
These three sections are actually quite well-structured and create a sense of building dread. The performance of Ruth Bradley is unquestionably the highlight of the film, as she creates a nearly unbearable portrait of an agonized, self-loathing young woman. In one sequence, Caroline rips off her clothes in front of her emotionally distant father (you may have already guessed this role would be played by Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and launches into an unforgiving speech against her own physical appearance. The murder sequence is also presented in an effectively harrowing manner, turning in a scene of cringe-inducing violence that matches Michael Winterbottom's The Killer Inside Me in its matter-of-fact intensity and numbing horror. During this scene, everything comes together with a dark inevitability: we truly understand not only how Rachel was killed, but why.
Here's the thing: all three of the aforementioned portions of the film (including the murder sequence) are done with by the halfway point. The film devotes the rest of its time to simply letting the rest of the characters catch up to the audience. The cast plays this material professionally and the level of craftsmanship is still respectable (even if North indulges in too many aimlessly arty touches, such as the eyeroll-inducing "breathing" effects meant to signify Rachel's spirit floating through the air). However, the suspense and intrigue drains out of the film at an alarming rate, leaving us with a by-the-numbers procedural headed towards a destination we've already visited. The filmmakers have played all of their cards, and now they're just killing time until the credits roll. At least, that's how it plays.
My other significant concern with the film is that we never really get to know the players involved. Caroline is an interesting character, but In Her Skin keeps us from really getting…um, in her skin. Rachel is even more of an enigma, a ballet-loving teenager that doesn't get to anything save for dance, dance, make love with her boyfriend, dance, dance and die. Guy Pearce, Miranda Otto and Sam Neill all deliver sturdy performances, but their characters feel cobbled together from other, better movies (Neill's character in particular seems oh-so-routine).
IFC Films continues their trend of delivering disappointing transfers, offering an image sorely lacking in detail and suffering a good bit during darker scenes. This movie has some lovely visual touches, but the transfer makes much of it look awfully drab. Audio is just fine for the most part, though the rock song which opens and closes the film is both terribly wrong-headed artistically and cranked up too loud in contrast to the rest of the film. Extras include a handful of interviews, some behind-the-scenes footage, deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer.
There are strong moments present in In Her Skin, but they're wasted on a poorly-organized, undercooked murder mystery. Too bad.
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