As far as first dates go, you’d struggle to think of any that are worse than this. Josef (Pascal Arquimedes, in his debut screen performance) arrives at the lavish apartment where John (Donal Brophy) lives. The pair had met before and agreed to a date, but Josef was too wasted to remember the specifics – a detail that becomes insignificant due to the mounting awkwardness that envelops their evening. John’s living room has a telescope looking across to a neighbouring apartment, where he has a voyeuristic agreement with the man living there, and Josef starts to feel unwell after helping himself to some of the pills in John’s bedroom.
These experimental pills instantly plunge him into a feeling of unease and increasing psychosis, and after a bizarre, unexplained incident, Josef finds himself in a police interrogation room where his night only continues to get worse. Two detectives (Tom Rizzuto and Chuja Seo) quickly transform their questioning of the accident into a borderline psychiatric analysis of Josef’s own personality, asking personal questions about his sexuality and his job while engaging in disturbing techniques to get him to spill all. But is this really happening, or are the drugs continuing to heighten the conflict happening in front of his eyes?
Writer/director Matthew Wollin, making his feature debut, has a legal background, but rather than writing about what he knows, he’s chosen to divorce the film from reality. It plays on themes that are undoubtedly familiar to anybody who has picked up a newspaper in recent memory, with the intense questioning of an innocent African American man playing out as a series of traps designed to force him into confessing a guilt for a crime he didn’t commit. But this isn’t a socio-political thriller, even if it may appear like one from the outside; the increasing surreality, confined entirely within the claustrophobic interiors of an interrogation room, is far closer to horror at its most experimental. The rules of this world increasingly make little sense, and scenes oscillate wildly from a masked detective asking odd questions about the case, to a trip to the room next door, where an all-seeing entity may be watching over proceedings. It feels familiar at first, but eventually, it’s hard to categorise as a social thriller in the same vein as a film like Jordan Peele’s Get Out.
Josef is notably an associate producer for a small company, with only one credit to his name, whereas Wollin equally has a background in the same role with only one listed credit; he was an associate producer on Liza Johnson’s 2013 film Hateship Loveship. This is a throwaway detail within the story as a whole, but is worth mentioning; the director’s interest in law may be irrelevant to this surreal story, but the fact his lead character shares his former profession has left me wanting to analyse the film in deeper detail, looking for aspects of autobiography that didn’t immediately reveal themselves. In a director’s statement released with the press notes of the film, he describes that the process of making The Skin of the Teeth left him feeling like Josef during the night, so powerful was his depiction of the fever dream he had conceived as a story idea a few years previously. But could this also be due to a character partially inspired by the director, thrown into a situation that he could never comprehend and forced to confront his own identity as a result?
The Skin of the Teeth is an unusual film; not quite horror, not quite social commentary, but captivating due to its enveloping sense of unease and unpredictability. I’m excited to see what Matthew Wollin makes next.