'The Skin of the Teeth': Film Review

The Skin of the Teeth Still 1 - Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of The Skin of the Teeth Productions
Intriguingly weird, up to a point.

A young man gets more than he bargained for when a date goes awry in Matthew Wollin's darkly comic, surreal thriller.

Debuting filmmaker Matthew Wollin makes the most of an obviously tiny budget, a handful of actors and only two locations for his surreal, darkly comic thriller. Depicting the aftermath of a date that goes horribly wrong, The Skin of the Teeth (recently showcased at numerous LGBT film festivals and now receiving a theatrical release) proves consistently intriguing throughout and marks its writer-director as a talent to watch, even if it ultimately doesn't fully live up to its stylistic ambitions.

The central character is Josef (Pascal Arquimedes), a young man who shows up at the well-appointed apartment of the older John (Donal Brophy) for an obviously casual hook-up. Josef becomes discomfited when he sees a telescope that John has trained on the apartment of a handsome man across the street who apparently approves of and reciprocates the voyeurism. "Relax, it's fine. It's New York," John assures his clearly jittery guest.

Josef is so jittery, in fact, that he helps himself to an unknown pill he finds in John's bathroom and soon begins experiencing strange sensations. John tells Josef he'll help him through the experience, although he's vague about what it will be. "It's hard to explain, it's experimental," he says about the ingested substance.

That things don't go well becomes evident when we next see Josef being interrogated by two detectives (Tom Rizzuto and Chuja Seo) for apparently murdering John. The questioning is definitely not of the ordinary variety, since neither the male nor the female detective is wearing pants. And the deeply personal questions don't seem to have much relation to the crime being investigated. Things become even stranger with the arrival of a public defender (Seo, again) wearing an elaborate animal mask, and Josef's encounter with a sexy male prisoner.  

The filmmaker seems to be straining for a deep, David Lynchian vibe, and he often comes close to achieving it. The Skin of the Teeth lacks Lynch's expert cinematic style, and its strangeness seems even more arbitrary than it needs to be, preventing us from being emotionally invested in the proceedings Despite Arquimedes' appealing performance as the beleaguered everyman, we know too little about the character to form any conclusions. There's a quick cutaway from the police station to a shot of Josef waking up in bed next to John, suggesting that the freakish events may be a nightmare or perhaps a hallucination induced by the drug he took. But once conveyed, the notion goes nowhere.

The proceedings might have been more effective as theater, especially considering the limited, claustrophobic settings and the small number of characters. Nonetheless, Wollin succeeds in maintaining a suitably tense, strange atmosphere that benefits from the tight running time. The strong supporting performances are another plus, with Brophy and Seo entertainingly leaning into the deadpan weirdness of their characters.

In the press notes, the director likens his film to a "fever dream." It's an apt description. The Skin of the Teeth is an intense experience, at least while you're watching it. But like a dream, the memory of it quickly fades.

Production: Skin of the Teeth Productions
Distributor: TLA Releasing
Cast: Pascal Arquimedes, Donal Brophy, Tom Rizzuto, Chuja Seo, David Cruz, Kathryn Shasha, Chris Raffaele, Greg Barker
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Wollin
Producers: Amanda Hammett, Matthew Wollin
Director of photography/editor: Dennis Thomas
Production designer: Sally SangHee Bae
Composer: Todd Maki

80 minutes