Home invasion films have gotten ridiculously popular currently; there’s something about putting an entire family in immediate danger that captures tension, even if that family isn’t someone you’d find appealing otherwise. In Their Skin tackles a lot of subjects that have currently been in the news and politics (hello there NY state gun law, won’t you join us for debate?), even if it was shot and filmed before the whole fiasco with Newtown. It’s not so much that it intentionally makes that idea into its philosophical course, but with the whole resounding chorus of naysayers shouting, “We need to protect ourselves with assault rifles!”, it’s difficult not to think of In Their Skin as anything but a testament to what happens when there’s a schism between rich and poor, between crazy and normal.
A family travels to their second home to take a vacation, hoping to overcome the death of their daughter in the process and renew a sense of love; with marriage failing, Mark (Joshua Close, also the writer) and Mary (Selma Blair) think that getting away from everything might help them find solace in each other and stop the endless blaming that non-verbally plagues them. They’ve just settled in for a night when they meet their new neighbors at the crack of dawn, bringing them some wood for their fireplace and requesting a dinner get-together so that their sons can meet each other. And so the story goes of how a family struggles to survive, tortured and pushed to the edge.
It’s a familiar idea, and In Their Skin works off of most of these genre cliches for much of the film. It’s almost too obvious that the neighbors Bobby (James D’Arcy), Jane (Rachel Miner), and Brendon (Quinn Lord) are the evil strangers that come to torture and steal from the main characters, and yet it happens anyway, perhaps as a way to try to circumvent what the audience already knows will happen.
Still, the first half is equal parts suspenseful and frustrating. It’s understandable that Mark and Mary are a bit confused about their relationship, and there’s a lot of tension between them where things go unsaid even though it might help if they just said them. But when the neighbors come around, Mark and Mary are strangely detached, at least at first. Mark is completely rude to them, for no reason other than that Bobby wanted to bring over some firewood a little too early in the morning. Most people might be happy, even strangely relieved to see that their neighbors were looking out for them. But Mark immediately shuns them, and his reaction indicates very early on that he gets a strange vibe from Bobby, even if the audience doesn’t.
Even at dinner, Mark and Mary are dishearteningly rude. It doesn’t elicit much empathy from the viewer afterwards, when the family is targeted by Bobby and Jane, because of their moody behavior as it is. That’s something that In Their Skin really struggles with, never sure how to react to situations like an average person might. Maybe that’s meant to be the case; maybe it’s supposed to give motive to Bobby’s actions, to show that Mark and Mary really are the stuck-up rich people that Bobby hates. But it’s not clear in the film, and there’s nothing to cement that idea about money besides the fact that Bobby keeps commenting on their lavish and perfect lifestyle.
That’s where the obvious relationship between rich and poor comes in. Bobby’s not from wealth, and it’s clear that the real motive here is to assume identities, to see what life on the other side of the fence is like. But it’s not as clean-cut as that; since Bobby and Jane lie so much, it’s difficult to know what the truth is, and I was never sure if Bobby was really jealous of Mark and Mary or if he’s just a psychopath who likes to change his identity.
The best parts of In Their Skin come from the initial encounters between Bobby and Mark. They’re so awkward that it works to create a spine-tingling sensation, only lessened by the fact that Mark’s reaction to simple questions is unnecessarily confrontational. Once we get into the real torture, the psychological terrors of voyeurism and a near-rape, In Their Skin becomes somewhat exploitative. We’re given it all in full detail, something that we don’t really need to see to understand the horror of it. These situations work best when we can’t see what’s happening, only hearing it – In Their Skin tries to be too bold and falls in areas other films have done better.
The film stretches a tad long into tedium, and that hurts it as well. But it does have one thing going for it that other films of this nature don’t have. I won’t tell you what it is, because it’s a major spoiler, but the sensation of what’s coming will begin to dawn on the viewer towards the final fifteen minutes of film. It’s easy to see coming, but at least it’s a deviation from the norm.
Even with its falters into genre cliche, though, In Their Skin is a better film in the home invasion subdivision than most. It works through awkwardness, strangeness, and an intense sense of dread, giving the viewer some eerie vision of what it might be like to have more and then have everything taken from you. In the end, do the trivialities of monetary possessions matter? Perhaps, if we continue to widen the gap between two opposite ends of the spectrum, it will mean more than just owning something – it might be the spark to set off the flame.