Film Review – Under the Skin
Under the Skin
Under the Skin (2013) will divide audiences. Some will love it, others will hate it. I’ve read reviews saying it’s a near masterpiece, one of the best films of the year. Others say it’s pretentious, dull, and overly indulgent. As I write this review, I must confess: I have not yet reached a solid conclusion on how I feel. Ask again a few weeks from now, and I may be in the same position. There is no denying it is an original, fascinating piece of filmmaking. But I say that with a level of detachment. For all the qualities it has, I view it as though it were sitting inside of a display case, only allowing me to engage from a distance.
Jonathan Glazer returns to the director’s chair nearly a decade after his last outing, Birth (2004). In that, Nicole Kidman’s character dealt with the possibility her dead husband has been reborn inside of a young boy. Under the Skin traverses similar “body possession” ideas, but this time it’s an alien, and the host is the body of Scarlett Johansson. Written by Walter Campbell (adapted from Michel Faber’s novel), the story involves an alien assuming the likeness of a human. The opening sets the tone. Circular lights begin to form on a black screen, moving together in strange patterns. A woman’s voice is heard mumbling sounds, like the person speaking them is doing so for the first time. We quickly realize this is the alien “being” starting to take shape, forming a female identity.
With few words, this woman goes out into the world (namely Scotland) with a purpose. Her mission: drive around in a white van, pick up lonely male targets using her looks and charm, take them to an abandoned apartment, and lead them into what I can only describe as The Black Room of Death. Accompanied by a mop up crew of motorcycle riders, the woman appears transfixed on taking down the male population, one by one. Why? It’s never explained, but the imagery showing the process is terrifying. It would be futile for me to describe it; you’d have to see it yourself to get the full effect.
What is Glazer trying to say here? Many themes can be articulated: ideas regarding beauty, sex and gender roles, the objectification of the female body, etc. Yes, Johansson is nude much of the time, but not in a titillating fashion. Nearly everyone who falls for her is punished for it. It’s said that many of the men she picked up were not actors, but actual people who did not know they were being filmed. There is a kind of spontaneity with that approach. The hunter/prey dynamic has a twist here: instead of Buffalo Bill prowling the night for women to kidnap, it’s the other way around. Glazer has set the story in a dreary environment, where everything seems constantly wet and miserable. His visuals jump back and forth between the realistic and the nightmarish, and often he lingers on a shot far longer than need be.
Johansson’s performance is a difficult one to tackle. She’s required to see the world as though everything is brand new. Scene after scene shows her staring off with her big round eyes, displaying confusion and wonderment. But when a target is within reach, she switches back to her alluring huntress persona. My questions aren’t with her acting, but with the context of how her character operates within this universe. If we are to assume this is the first time the alien is interacting with humans, how is she so aware of basic social functions? She capably drives a van through traffic, can converse with other humans in a relatively normal way, and uses sexual attraction as a weapon. The alien could have chosen any human likeness, but by some stroke of luck chose the body of one of the most beautiful women in the world? Maybe I’m thinking about this the wrong way.
This isn’t a horror film, but it’s quite unnerving. The music by Mica Levi doesn’t sound like music, and I mean that as a compliment. It’s a constant, subtle rumble of noises and effects. Blended with Glazer’s deliberately slow pacing and dark photography, we find ourselves squirming in our seats, thinking that something will jump out and scare us. Fortunately, Glazer has different goals in mind. Even more impressive is that he is able to maintain this tone throughout the entire runtime.
I’m giving Under the Skin a recommendation because of how different and unusual it is. I refrain from being too detailed with describing the plot, because it would be better if you go in knowing as little as possible. But with all that I’ve written, I still can’t say I completely loved it. I left the theater feeling disconnected; I witnessed the film instead of being an active participant. It kept me at arm’s length, daring me not to fully embrace what it was providing. There’s a lot I still need to mull over with this one, and that might very well be its biggest strength.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7bAZCOk0Sc&w=560&h=315]