Filmmaker Matthew Wollin describes his new movie “The Skin of the Teeth” as “a fever dream.”
That might be because the film, which is getting a New York premiere ahead of its May 14 release on DVD/VOD platforms, was shot over the course of 13 days in the New York summertime by a handful of people crammed into a “sweltering, windowless room,” an environment that seems highly likely to make one feel feverish.
Whatever the reason, it’s an apt summation of a film that has been called “’Get Out’ meets Grindr.” It begins with an awkward hookup between John (Donal Brophy), a handsome and obviously affluent New Yorker, and Josef (Pascal Arquimedes), a younger black man from Mississippi who might have previously met him under cloudy circumstances. Despite a rocky start, the two men seem on the verge of hitting it off when an unexpected mishap plunges Josef into an increasingly surreal nightmare in which he finds himself at the center of a Kafka-esque interrogation.
To say it’s full of twists goes only halfway to explaining its convoluted plot; it also takes its narrative to a place where reality itself becomes blurred. In Wollin’s taut, terse screenplay, we are introduced first to John, in a way that captures, perhaps, the essence of his Grindr profile; but when Josef shows up, our perspective is shifted to this newcomer on the scene, and we follow him, like Alice, down the rabbit hole that opens up when his perceptions become unexpectedly altered.
To reveal any more than that would be a spoiler, but the journey on which Josef takes us leads through a series of tense, edgy, exceptionally acted two- and three-person scenes, with a small ensemble cast sharing roles (and vice-versa) in a way that heightens the dreamlike tone of the film.
The meticulously careful crafting Wollin has executed as director would be enough to make “The Skin of the Teeth” fascinating to watch. It’s more than just an artful head trip, however. There are some deep undercurrents in this story that starts out as a psychological thriller about a hook-up gone wrong and turns into an exploration of racism, homophobia and the ever-shifting politics of power, gender and identity.
To begin with, it offers us a lead character who is a gay man of color, something rare even in small, independent film projects like this one. Almost immediately, it subverts the expected trope of portraying a black hero by making him an “unreliable narrator,” in a sense, and throwing us off balance in our understanding of the relationships we are seeing on the screen. It casually, but pointedly, confronts us with our own assumptions about race, sexuality, gender and the rest of it. It effectively builds suspense by playing on our fears, the uncomfortable “what if?” thoughts that plague a generation who make their sexual connections on hookup apps, and evoking thoughts of date rape, gay-bashing, hate crimes and worse, without having to actually take the story down any of those dark pathways.
Ultimately, though, “The Skin of the Teeth” is a movie that, as Wollin puts it, “is at heart about how we determine who we are. What actually comes from us, and what comes from the world around us? How much of what we see is really there, and how much is just what we expect to see? And after all this push and pull, what is left? What have we — actually, accidentally and thrillingly — become?”
His movie benefits from the work of an impressive cast of players.
As Josef, Arquimedes strikes the balance between affable and opaque, making him a perfect blank slate for audiences to identify with even if they can never quite trust him or even know who he really is; he also offers a believable portrayal of a man forced to recognize that he can never quite trust or even know himself, either, something made even more impressive by the layers of unreality through which his performance must filter itself within the conceits of the film.
Brophy, as John, is a perfect counter to him. Broad, beefy, charismatic, he exudes the confident sexuality of a “daddy” who knows what he’s got to offer; he strikes a commanding presence, but he undercuts the aura of entitlement with a not-so-hidden tender streak. He and Arquimedes do a remarkable job of charting their fluctuating dynamic throughout the early segments of the film, building what could easily develop into a believable relationship if things didn’t take an unexpected turn. That chemistry plays an important part in establishing the “uncertain ground” that lies beneath most of the film’s action as it progresses, and these two actors deserve kudos for it.
As various cops, lawyers, and other, more ambiguous authority figures, Tom Rizzuto, Chuja Seo and Chris Rafaele commit to each of their interchanging roles with intensity and skill, and David Cruz has a hypnotic one-scene turn as a cigarette-smoking convict with whom Josef enjoys a few minutes’ respite in his ordeal.
Also worth singling out is the film’s score, by Todd Maki, which broods elegantly underneath and in the margins to help maintain Wollin’s ethereal cinematic ambiance.
“The Skin of the Teeth” is an intriguing, surprising and provocative thriller that keeps us on edge even as it evolves into something more esoteric. That’s a feat many bigger productions, with more money and more powerful studios behind them, fail to accomplish. What shouldn’t go by without notice is that it’s also a movie that uses LGBTQ characters to tell a story in which their sexuality is integral to a story that is, at the same time, not dependent upon it.
In other words, it doesn’t use “gay” as a gimmick, but merely as a condition of a narrative which tackles universal themes that go beyond sexuality. It’s an example of visibility done right, and a promising reminder that, for an up-and-coming generation of queer filmmakers, the transformation of LGBTQ presence in the narratives that emerge within our popular culture is already well under way.