What constitutes a crime? This seemingly easy question to answer is at the heart of writer-director Richard Bailey’s A Ship Of Human Skin. While the mystical, experimental drama does allow the audience to decide for themselves, it does definitively prove that the answer is not as black-and-white as one may initially think. But, does it do so in a way that holds the attention of the audience?
Jeannie (Hilly Holsonback) and Saribeth (Hannah Weir) want to escape their life of performing tricks in parking lots and drugs. They are at the mercy of the lazy but mean Oral (Ike Duncan). One day, Oral goes after the meek Saribeth, so Jeannie kills him. Convincing herself and her friend that this was a spiritual necessity, Jeannie coaches Saribeth to stay strong and not break while being interrogated.
Though only covering a portion of the storyline, without spoiling everything, that’s a fair assessment of the plot’s happenings. While it may sound straightforward, Bailey, making his feature-length debut, tells it non-linearly, with very few scenes playing out in a traditional sense. Saribeth has these long monologues about how Jeannie would build her up, or intone on about the religious aspects of her belief that killing Oral was just. Playing out on screen are dramatic shots of the two ladies standing in desolate, stark locations (abandoned buildings and open fields, etc.) that represent their lives in turmoil at that moment in time.
“…Oral goes after the meek Saribeth, so Jeannie kills him.”
As A Ship Of Human Skin progresses, the odd tone, which vacillates between dark humor, drama, intense anger, and religious philosophizing, finally clicks. It’s a bit rough going at first, as the movie establishes the characters, style, and the mannered way of speaking of the characters, and being all those things. It’s a bit too much to absorb all at once and proves to be overwhelming for the first 20-minutes.
The acting is also uneven, as Holsonback and Weir look dazed and confused for so much of the movie. And that makes Weir’s dry delivery of her monologues feel repetitive and dull. However, as the rest of the film settles into itself, so to do the actors. See, the “dry delivery” is intended not to overwhelm the movie’s experimental visuals and style. It does not totally work, but once the whole sordid tale is wrapped up and one can understand the motivations behind Bailey’s direction of the actors.
With that being said, Weir and Holsonback share excellent chemistry and are believable as friends. Holsonback’s impassioned speeches about her revelations and the need to protect her and Saribeth are rousing and appropriately intense. As the antagonist, Ike Duncan is despicable, and viewers will be angry with him right away.
A Ship Of Human Skin’s style and ambition are both its strengths and weaknesses. When the movie work, it proves that it has a lot to say about violence against women, the criminal justice system, and religion. But, its message is a bit confusing at times, as Bailey does a lot, all the time, never letting audiences’ orient themselves to the movie at the beginning. Certain audiences will savor every minute of this film, and others will be turned off by it, but either way, no one will soon forget it.
"…vacillates between dark humor, drama, intense anger, and religious philosophizing..."