Skin Walker takes about as long to get to the action as I imagine the filmmakers took to find an appropriate title for this dramatic thriller starring Udo Kier, which seemingly has no relevance to the mythical Navajo witches who use black magic to disguise themselves as animals also commonly known as “skin walkers.”
Things begin when a frenzied man, Robert (Jefferson Hall), barges into the home of Regine (Amber Anderson) claiming to be the father of her brother who she thought was dead but is, in fact, alive and being kept from her due to some terrible family secret. What follows is a placid drive through the countryside as Regine returns to her family home to attend the funeral of her grandmother followed by an intense scene of her brother’s birth and subsequent theft by said grandmother.
These pulses of activity and placidity are used throughout the film, leading to frequent bouts of tonal whiplash which feel intentional and are not wholly ineffective but lose their effect as this pace becomes predictable. Skin Walker is by most standards a well-made film with a lush yet somber aesthetic, an intensely neurotic performance by Amber Anderson, and a pervasive friction between all of the players in a dark family drama that is always asking questions and giving half-answers. And yet, I found myself struggling to care. Like being thrust into the middle of an argument between two people that you don’t know very well, Skin Walker is so concerned with establishing its conflict that it only occasionally stops to give us a chance to get to know the combatants. It’s not that it never finds humanity, just by the time things gets there it’s already used up all of the dramatic potential these intense moments of conflict might have had if they had come after we had gotten a chance to care about the characters they concern.
While the experience as a whole didn’t come together for me, I did enjoy Regine’s dynamic with Robert and Claus (Udo Kier). Robert clearly cares more about Regine and her mother but the mountain of lies her life has been built upon causes her to lash out against him. Meanwhile, she tries everything she can to connect with Claus but he’s an impenetrable wall of disinterest who refuses to acknowledge all the questions she has and makes no secret of the fact that he wants her gone as soon as the funeral is over. Kier’s penchant for awkward, emotionally-distant characters acts as a frustrating counterpoint to Anderson’s earnest passion and desire to understand her past which keeps the plot going.
Skin Walker has some wonderful scenes and characters but the pacing and how we’re introduced to the narrative can be frustrating. The need to grab the viewer’s attention in a world where something else is a click away is a very real one and Skin Walker got my attention but in its single-minded focus on not going more than five minutes without some major conflict, we lose a lot of what would have made that conflict work.
6 out of 10