So, let's assume you're staying in a secluded rural cottage as a getaway from metropolitan life, a necessity in the wake of a recent tragedy: the death of a child. It's an uncomfortable time for your significant other, who's especially grief-stricken by the passing; the event has made them cold, despondent, and unavailable for physical intimacy. Early one morning, where the night before a car had suspiciously cruised and stopped in front of the secluded forest house, loud noises wake everybody up in the home due to a trespassing family chopping wood in the front yard. These strangers -- a thin, aggressive father (James D'Arcy); a scatterbrained mother (Rachel Miner); and a big-for-his-age son (Alex Ferris) -- are oddly insistent and probing during conversation, as they offer the wood they chopped and a special salad as a forced means of rushing a neighborly connection. Clearly, the correct course of action here is to ignore what happened the night before, ruffle your significant other's feathers, and invite these people for dinner that evening ... right? Well, the guy in In Their Skin seems to think it's a good idea.
This is the blunder that director Jeremy Regimbal works against in his home-invasion thriller, where dour characters are forced into a dubious predicament. The beginning paints an image of this family of three making their way to the secluded house, where the ghostly disposition of a real-estate developer, Mary (Selma Blair), quickly gains our focus; she's a mother grieving the death of her child, the primary reason her lawyer husband, Mark (Diary of the Dead's Joshua Close, also the writer), has orchestrated this vacation. Expected issues arise while they're there: Mary isn't prepared for life to get back to normal, leaving her on-edge and disinterested in rebuilding an intimate relationship with her husband. Their son (Quinn Lord) doesn't seem too distraught by the events, though, playing videogames and with his dog. Despite how each one copes with their grief, there's little that's interesting about the family -- outside of their foolishness when handling their "neighbors".
That other family, however, are quite the abnormal bunch; observably, insufferably abnormal, and they don't exactly give off a good first impression. That doesn't stop Mark from extending a dinner invitation to suspicious strangers, though, which leads to an evening of verbal snooping and twitchy nerves over red wine and secret cigarettes. This conversation between the two families over their meal, framed for thematic effect as a "mirror image" of sorts between husbands, wives, and sons in Norm Li's brooding cinematography, provides some of the most painfully drawn-out sequences of awkwardness that I've ever endured. Director Regimbal aims to create an atmosphere of aggression and unease fueled by the jealously of a down-and-out family over the success of another, but the conversations resulting between them -- overstated responses, unrealistic inquiries, and peculiar mirror-image reactions -- play out more like some bizarro glimpse at how bitter beings from another planet might try to communicate with successful humans.
It'd be one thing if In Their Skin's intended discomfort led to something more significant once the film's suspense gained momentum, but the script persists down questionable paths that lead to a hollow replication of other home-invasion films, especially Michael Haneke's Funny Games. The difference lies in the invaders' motives, where pure sadistic pleasure with an authorial purpose -- such as Haneke's commentary on how audiences relish the safety of on-screen violence -- mostly takes a back seat to the perfunctory "ambition" of wildly unhinged people who couldn't feasibly con anyone. Shock value ensues in their scheme, as one would expect; knives are pulled and pistols fired with the intent of keeping the sadistic situation under control, along with forcing the victims to do things they might not otherwise do. Any attempts that Regimbal makes to challenge the audience, however, are reduced to little more than boorish provocations.
In Their Skin continues with this unpleasant descent into crazy town once the conflict reaches its boiling point, driven by the undertones of desiring and obtaining a perfect life by any means necessary. Selma Blair does what she can as a mother grieving the loss of her child, whose darkened eyes and thin, angular face render a person who deserves a departure from her harrowing everyday life to rediscover the woman she once was. That should enhance what director Regimbal sets out to do, but instead it makes it even more frustrating to see her caught up in the avoidable scheming of loons who yearn to snatch her life away. Maybe this is where the worn-out message of "life can always get worse, so appreciate what you have" fits into the equation, reinforced by the tidy way that this chaotic dilemma conveniently reaches its end. Or, perhaps it's as simple as not inviting the wild-eyed, twitchy strangers over at all, and to call people early on if things appear sketchy.
Video and Audio:
In Their Skin is an incredibly dreary film, reflected in the 2.35:1-framed cinematography that focuses on soul-crushing grayness with only a few breaks for mild color. MPI Home Video's widescreen-enhanced DVD navigates that bleak contrast with a suitable eye for what's important: the subtle shifts in pale-pink skin tone, the coarse texture of stone and wood in the outdoors, and the necessity for rich, complex lighting to bounce off white walls and tan tiles in the cottage. The black levels do occasionally crush out detail, some lines and densely-detailed areas in distanced details (woods, faces, etc) can't avoid shimmering, and some excessive softness detracts from the clearly high-grade photography. It does hit some high points where needed though, during close-ups emphasizing the tension in faces. Generally, for a low-saturation, grim visual affair, it satisfies as needed.
Really, this Dolby Digital 5.1 track is only a few steps away from being nothing more than a 2-channel affair, since almost all of the activity relies on dialogue and front-heavy actions. Little ambience travels to the rears for a surround experience; the faint echo of voices in a dining room and in a bathroom creep to the rear, as well as the opening of a door and other louder effects. Mostly, this track relies on the integrity of dialogue, which it gets right rather frequently: the rumble of deeper voices and the respectful mid-range presence of the female voices creates a natural conversational balance. Put simple, the disc handles a low-activity track with a respectable-enough hand. English SDH and Spanish subtitles have been made available.
Nothing but a Trailer (1:55, 16x9).
The premise of In Their Skin isn't where it falters, since the concept of an at-odds family fending off home invaders can, and has in the past, rendered compelling suspense and emotional drama. Instead, it's the disposition of the invaders and the success of their wiles that makes the gloomy, curt experience feel heavier than it already is, while the awkward banter between the two families reduces many of the scenes to shallow, unintentionally-funny stretches that grate on the nerves. And the suspense, a mix of familiar shock-value twists and an extension of those unsatisfying characterizations, continues until the end of Jeremy Regimbal's picture. I'd suggest passing this one and checking out Funny Games or Straw Dogs, better films with somewhat similar ideas and tension. Skip It.