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Review: 'Under the Skin'

Under the Skin


Loosely based on the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, “Under the Skin” is a bizarre and darkly surreal horror film shot in Scotland. Though there’s very little by way of plot or narrative, it’s basically about a creature wearing the skin suit of Scarlett Johansson and luring men into her van so she might bring them “back to her place”. Once there, things get a little weird.

Stills from 'Under the Skin'
Stills from 'Under the Skin'Film4
Be afraid...
Be afraid...Film4

The movie follows the female alien as she goes about her business, and there’s a strange methodical nature to it. She seems to work with another like her, though he’s a man on a motorcycle. It’s never shown what he does when he’s not with her, but when he is, he seems to be a handler of sorts. He inspects her, cleans up after her, and monitors her movements. She acts as a lure for men who are alone and susceptible to getting into windowless vans driven by a beautiful and seemingly interested young woman.

It’s a movie that relies heavily on mood and distance. There’s little to no music, only meaningless superfluous dialogue (the things she and the men talk about could be anything); for all intents and purposes this is very much a silent film. There are even a few key instances of old school silent cinema image juxtaposition, where her face is melded with crowds and scenery. It’s very much like something you’d see in Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, with the android Maria. The musical score seems to be little more than a pulse, like a deep heartbeat that occasionally surfaces to haunt the scenes. It adds a lot to the already cold and illusory premise.

What’s never explained, only adding to the mystery and horror aspect, is the how and the why of it all. What we know about these two beings? They are not human. That’s about it. There are only vague imaginings as to why they do what they do and the exact nature of what is happening. Are they evil? Maybe. What do they need those men for? What is the place that she claims is her place? It’s full of strange and hard to define sexual themes, which even now elude me. Watching it is hypnotic at times, and it becomes a journey both erotic and terrifying.

There’s a serious display of style here from co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer. On the one hand there’s a lot of gritty real world imagery, emphasized by the many interior van shots, handheld camera and at times hidden for the crowd scenes, and many long shots of the Scotland towns and suburbs. It adds a lot of realism to the setting, which is then clashed against the starkly surreal when we follow her and her victims into her “home”. Time and space are rendered meaningless in this place. We are treated to a background of pure endless white for the alien’s creation, and pure endless black for her victims, with unknown light sources and a mirror image below them. The complete absence of sound and space makes these already bizarre sequences all the more disturbing, and the more time you spend in this place, the more frightening it becomes.

Scarlett Johansson gives a wonderfully minimalistic performance, mostly having no expression at all other than a vague interest in those she stalks. The personality she conjures for their seduction is absolutely artificial, and it’s all too clear the way she hunts down isolated men that she’s a predator on the prowl. Her face is perfect for the part, for already she emits an unearthly beauty.

There are essentially two halves to this movie, the first being the more visually arresting, but the second takes another odd turn as the character loses sight of herself and attempts to bond with a human man. It’s treated so distantly that there never seems a moment of true understanding between them. She’s just too alien for ordinary.

Under the Skin” is a memorable and haunting horror sci-fi, if that can even apply. It mostly defies meaning and captures the attention with its simplicity and striking visuals. There are scenes in this movie I will likely never forget.