CAPSULE: A SHIP OF HUMAN SKIN (2019)

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Bailey

FEATURING: Hilly Holsonback, Hannah Weir, Ike Duncan, Cameron McElyea

PLOT: Jeanie, an aimless young woman, is arrested after she murders a man with an axe; a cult of personality forms around her after a prison guard claims to see her levitating.

Still from A Ship of Human Skin (2019)

COMMENTS: I always appreciate it when an independent film is aware of the limitations of its budget, and opts to make use of those limitations to enhance its atmosphere and themes.

Such is, for the most part, the case with Richard Bailey’s A Ship of Human Skin. The film is very minimalist in its presentation; the cast is small, and the sets are limited (the film gets a great deal of mileage out of some gorgeous shots of the Texas landscape, and a fifteen-minute sequence that covers several months of Jeannie’s life is shot entirely in a single room). However, this minimalism lines up well with the narrative, which follows a pair of young women who feel isolated and frustrated by their monotonous lives in “the boonies.” By confining these characters to a sparse handful of backdrops and surrounding them with only a small group of people, the film directly evokes the protagonists’ sense of seclusion, and of having been “handed over from birth into emptiness.”

Of course, thanks to its constrained budget, there are also aspects of the film that feel underdeveloped. Ship suggests that Jeannie has amassed a cult-like following. However, its limited resources mean that it can only convey this mass fascination through a few scenes of a small number of secondary characters discussing her supposedly mystical nature. While we’re frequently told that Jeannie is as a messianic figure, it’s an element which doesn’t feel substantial. Instead, the central focus is on studying Jeannie as a character, as well as the environment in which the murder she commits takes place. We examine her dispassionate attitude to societal convention that ultimately leads her to an unhappy life of prostitution and dope-dealing; and we’re shown how, despite her lack of education, she is sharp-minded in her own way, with opinions on such matters as personal identity and the internalized significance of particular words. It’s an overall engaging look at a character who, neglected by society, is forced to channel her considerable intelligence into seeking meaning in abstract concepts and alternative belief systems, which leads her down a path of paranoia that ultimately drives her to violence.

Of course, a character-driven film depends upon a strong cast; but A Ship of Human Skin is middling in that regard. The cast consists mostly of unknowns, and a good number of them carry their roles well (Hannah Weir, in particular, does a largely excellent job of bringing out the meek and rather simple, yet fiercely loyal personality of Jeannie’s close friend Saribeth). However, Hilly Holsonback, who plays Jeannie—while not a bad actress by any means—does not quite exude the fierce charisma and conviction that Jeannie is treated as possessing. Nevertheless, she bears through the film’s emotional climaxes relatively well, and manages to convey the character in her more subdued moments.

The film plays fast and loose with its presentation, alternating between styles of a documentary and a theatrical narrative. All the way through, however, it maintains a deliberately slow pace and dreamlike atmosphere, further emphasizing the slow and monotonous existence that the main characters endure—which, in turn, inspires their drug-fueled search for significance in the abstract philosophies that they create for themselves. Much like the secondary characters who introduce us to Jeannie, we are made to feel very much like curious outsiders looking in on Jeannie’s life, knowing only vague details at first, and slowly piecing together the mindset and circumstances that drove her to violence. Truth be told, the ultimate explanation for Jeannie’s actions ends up anticlimactic and mundane in comparison with the strong air of mystery that the film builds around it; but nonetheless, it is set up well, lending the film an unusual combination of surrealism and logical progression.

A Ship of Human Skin is first and foremost a character study. It does an admirable job of balancing a haunting atmosphere of dreamlike minimalism with a refreshing look at the path that intelligent but disaffected young women like Jeannie can be forced down. There are aspects that could have been built up or ironed out; but overall, Richard Bailey’s feature-length directorial debut shows a resourcefulness and a talent for evoking a strong atmosphere that will surely serve him well in any future forays into weird cinema.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Problem is, these girls cannot act and it comes off as unintended comedy… Before we get to them, the film starts off in cheesy poetry done by a weird G-Man impersonation…  if you are a fan of fun-bad movies like The Room, or more closely, Fateful Findings, you will have ‘Decent’ enjoyment with A Ship of Human Skin. For everyone who wants to watch a good thriller about drug abuse, there’s a million better options out there, trust me!”–Pond’s Press (festival screening)

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