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MOVIE REVIEW: Under the Skin (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Haunting, disturbing, and often incredibly challenging, director Jonathan Glazer adapts Michael Faber’s cult horror novel to the screen, with Scarlett Johansson delivering an amazing performance as an alien preying on unsuspecting males.


SYNOPSIS: An alien takes the body of a beautiful woman and travels Scotland to pick up strange men.

PROS: Scarlett Johansson, almost perfectly inhabiting the role of a predatory alien; Jonathan Glazer’s atmospheric, surreal direction, especially in the use of guerilla filmmaking techniques; screenplay by Glazer and William Campbell that invites the audience to fill in the gaps.
CONS: Perhaps too obscure and confounding for some audiences.

How strange the world must actually look to alien eyes: the planes that stretch into landscape and horizon; the contrast of light and shadow that finally settle into color; the shapes that cohere into flora and fauna; the right angles that shape themselves into buildings. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin opens with abstract geometries on tableaus of whites and blacks, culminating in a view of a woman’s (Scarlett Johansson) silhouette in a completely white field undressing the corpse of a streetwalker found somewhere on the shoulders of a Scottish road by a biker (or what we believe to be a biker). She stops to watch an ant crawl along her finger, studying its head and compound eye. The close-up provides the only real suggestion of these beings’ nature.

Dressed and roaming the streets in a white van, the woman — the movie never names her — scans the sidewalks in search of…what, exactly? Prey? Seen from her ominous point of view, that seems the obvious answer. The sounds of the engine, of crowds, of rain, all at times overpower. Glazer foregrounds the background noise, giving us the experience of a being with fresh ears.

When she finally pulls to a curb, she enjoins men in conversation. Wide eyes peek beneath black bangs, a coquettish grin spreads across her wide mouth and full lips. Are you from around here? she asks one. Do you live alone? she asks another. Eventually she leads one to an ink-black interior, beckoning him to follow as she disrobes. Follow he does, but blackness swallows him. These surreal interiors jar because they sit alongside the cinéma vérité elements (Glazer filmed many of the scenes where the alien picks up men using non-actors unaware that they were in a movie), adding to the viewers’ discomfort and disorientation. Where have they gone? Does she lure them to their deaths? It appears so, and in one remarkable sequence Glazer and fellow screenwriter Walter Campbell answer that question — but obliquely. What purpose is being served? The movie offers clues, yet demands the viewer draw conclusions. Audiences accustomed to movies that serve their predigested information might find Under the Skin confounding even during its clearest passages.

A dark, haunting atmosphere suffuses events. In one sequence, the alien attempts to seduce a man on a beach, but instead witnesses a couple accidentally drown. She kills the man as he attempts to save them, then takes the man’s body, leaving the couple’s toddler to scream for help as wave crash on the beach. Later, as she sits in her van scanning the streets for men, a radio broadcast reports the disappearance of the couple and their child. The scene disturbs with its almost unflinching lack of humanity, as does its aftermath — Johansson focuses incredible attention on her surroundings, but never with anything resembling curiosity or interest — yet also serves as potent symbolism. Indeed, Glazer wraps multiple meanings into almost every scene. Though meditative, to the attentive viewer Under the Skin is busy, with most of its subject seething beneath its avant-garde surface.

Glazer and Campbell work with portions of Michael Faber’s dizzying, at times baffling novel, jettisoning much of its biting satire and allegorical content in favor of focusing on the definition of the human. Perhaps this was the only way to do it. Faber’s exhilarating prose fueled his books more grotesque moments even as its scope and targets broadened and the inclusion of rather silly metaphysics caused the entire thing to sputter and lay dormant by the closing pages. The screenplay, by contrast, focuses on Johansson’s alien herself, and how her human skin grows into more than mere disguise, which elevates Under the Skin above a mere experimental horror show, a sort of Solaris meets Psycho. It never allows the viewer any real intimacy — one might see scene in which she attempts to make love with a man who has given her shelter as symbolic of the movie’s relationship to its audience — but offers avenues for empathy, especially as the barriers between alien and human deteriorate. At one point, she attempts to eat human food, only to discover that she cannot. Impenetrable though she is, her inability to carry out this basic human function makes the scene heartbreaking.

Glazer focuses the camera on Scarlett Johansson almost exclusively; few scenes take place without her, which means the movie rests almost entirely on her shoulders. Her performance is remarkable for how well she inhabits alien skin. In her black wig, fake fur coat, and fishnet stockings, she exhibits an odd sexuality: come hither and seductive, yet detached. The word “reptilian” might describe her; she obviously lives and breathes, yet almost never exhibits anything distinctly human. Only once does her thespian mask slip; something close to panic fills her eyes when she leaves her van to pursue a man she sees on the street, and he disappears into a crowd at a rave. Glazer, meanwhile, unfolds the movie’s events with an icy assuredness and calculated calm that succeed in building tension and suspense while never quite sensationalizing his subject matter. When he rests his eye on Under the Skin’s often startling images, he presents them in a manner that feels as alien as Johansson’s character and might remind one of the surreal mise en scène of Nicolas Roeg or Neil Jordan. Under the Skin draws one in with its hypnotic palate, then challenges with its dark currents. The surface is beautiful; fortunately, its beauty is not skin deep.

2 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Under the Skin (2013)

  1. Paul Weimer // April 19, 2014 at 8:03 am //

    Going to go see this today. Thanks, Derek!

  2. Paul Weimer // April 19, 2014 at 7:03 pm //

    Challenging, Interesting cinematography. Liked it a lot.

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