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In Her Skin
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by brianorndorf

"Brutal, but murder typically is"
3 stars

“This is a true story” reads the opening card of “In Her Skin,” throwing down a bold promise of truth to a film of shifting perspectives and hearsay. Though it opens as a routine missing person drama, the feature soon heads down some unspeakably grim areas of murder and psychological disease, hoping to emphasize the shock of the offense being recounted. It’s an intense picture that boils over too easily, but the purity of horror on display here is extraordinary.

When teen Rachel Barber (Kate Bell) doesn’t arrive home as planned late one night, her parents, Mr. Barber (Guy Pearce) and Mrs. Barber (Miranda Otto), immediately sense trouble. Intensely hunting for their child while local cops play off the case as a simple runaway situation, the couple plasters the city with pictures, capturing the attention of the media and top detectives. For Caroline Reid (Ruth Bradley), Rachel’s disappearance is no surprise. A disturbed, violent neighbor to the Barbers, Caroline has killed Rachel due to her volcanic jealousy, using the murder to purify her burning self-loathing, covering up her vicious act while the investigation intensifies.

“In Her Skin” is an unexpectedly straightforward recreation of Rachel Barber’s 1999 disappearance and murder, though writer/director Simone North attempts to shake up the sequence of events through a structure of shifting perspectives, attacking the basic evidence by splitting the tale between the Barbers and Caroline. The jolts in tone are tastefully handled by the filmmaker, who deploys a swirling sense of camera movement to flow back and forth between domestic desperation and internal decay, maintaining the nightmare of the piece as the Barbers push to keep their daughter alive through persistent questioning, while Caroline stews in her cruel act of slaughter, relishing her achievement.

“In Her Skin” is a raw film. Though the genre typically offers more passively teary displays of confusion, North cuts right to the chase, establishing Caroline as a demented woman haunted by her emotional demons, which manifest in vile missives to loved ones, sharing her innermost hatred for the world, her distant father (played by Sam Neill), and the command of grace that’s defined every success Rachel has enjoyed. North keeps tight on Caroline, permitting Bradley to freely express manic episodes for as long as the actress can hold out. It’s a committed performance of exceptional terror, but points of insanity are made long before North cuts away. The same can be said of the Barber story, with Pearce and Otto taking a few overwrought detours into prolonged grief that are more cleanly communicated in short bursts of pain.

Equally as detailed is the violence, with North unflinching in her depiction of Rachel’s murder and mutilation at the hands of a frenzied Caroline. It’s upsetting and graphic, perhaps more vicious than necessary to make a statement about the brutality. However, it does make a profound impression, creating a haunting atmosphere of unhinged behavior that sustains Caroline’s unpredictability, making her every move chilling. Regardless of true crime reality, viewers that are more sensitive should exercise caution with this picture.

“In Her Skin” is a deeply felt film with potent charges against apathetic police procedures and parental responsibility when dealing with a mentally disturbed child. It’s on the sloppy side, but the primary textures of alarm are sustained and sharply performed, making for a gut-wrenching viewing experience with a foundation in reality that’s too awful to bear.

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originally posted: 06/11/11 22:33:24
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Directed by
  Simone North

Written by
  Simone North

  Guy Pearce
  Sam Neill
  Miranda Otto
  Ruth Bradley

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