Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” is, in a word, hypnotic. Shot in a clinical fashion that would have made Stanley Kubrick proud, it puts us in the shoes of a nameless and mysterious young woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who spends her days driving around Scotland and seducing lonely men for what seems like a night of much needed sex. But it soon turns out that she is not of this world as she lures these oblivious men to a dark void where their bodies are sucked into a deep dark abyss of liquid. It is there that their bodies are consumed and sent off to a bright red light which I can assume represents the alien world she originates from. But while she may seem like an evil parasite, her travels on Earth result in her going through a process of self-discovery she was never meant to experience, and it leads to an endlessly fascinating journey that is not easily forgotten.
I was amazed that Glazer had in some ways fashioned this movie as a silent film. There is dialogue here, but not a whole lot of it. Johansson doesn’t speak until she finds a lonely male walking the streets all by his lonesome, and it is then that she shows us just how good her Scottish accent really is. It also turns out that most of the characters we see in this movie were portrayed by non-actors who more or less improvised their dialogue. This gives “Under the Skin” a down to earth feel which helps to make Johansson’s character (we never learn her name or anyone else’s for that matter) seem all the more out of her element.
Visually, the movie has a strange beauty in its depiction of darkness and light, and there’s a scene in particular where we see what happens to the bodies of the men Johansson seduces that is eerily beautiful and shocking all at the same time. While many people might look at Glazer as if he is totally ripping off of Kubrick, he really has given this whole movie a unique feel that doesn’t invite many easy comparisons to others.
“Under the Skin” may end up frustrating a lot of viewers as this is a movie that doesn’t provide much in the way of answers. Glazer has opted to leave a lot of what we see to our imaginations, and I am always excited when a filmmaker challenges his audience to think about what they are seeing. Not every image we see deserves a straightforward explanation, and we live in a time when people are desperate for others to give them a definitive answer without thinking critically about what just took place.
Johansson herself is mesmerizing to watch from start to finish. Her character is a very tricky one to play as she has to come off as emotionally cold, but she eventually finds herself in a state of self-discovery where she experiences a number of things for the very first time. This is where she really could have gone overboard with moments that screamed out Oscar nomination, but her performance feels very unique to others she has given in the past, and her reactions to experiences are enthralling to witness. Johansson also has a very small amount of dialogue to deal with, so much of the acting she has to do is with her eyes which prove to be as beautiful as her body (seriously, let’s not kid ourselves here).
Another thing which really stands out in “Under the Skin” is its amazingly original music score composed by Mica Levi, better known by her stage name of Micachu. She composes mostly experimental music, and her soundscapes and bizarre musical design perfectly meshes with Glazer’s haunting visuals. I haven’t heard a film score quite this unique since Jonny Greenwood worked his musical magic on Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” You can sure bet that I will be buying the CD for this soundtrack as soon as I get the chance.
Glazer burst onto the scene with his feature film debut “Sexy Beast” in which Ben Kingsley gave us one of the most frightening (and unhappy) gangsters on the planet, but he has been absent from the movie world since his follow-up film “Birth.” It turns out that he started working on his adaptation of “Under the Skin” back in 2004, and it has taken him a decade to get his vision onto the silver screen. It’s great to have him back behind the camera as he has an amazing visual style that just sucks you right in. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen for one second as the movie unfolded before me.
“Under the Skin” is filled with so many haunting images that will stay with me for a long, long time. The black void where Johansson’s character lures her male victims to, the white void where she dresses in another person’s clothes, a man racing his motorcycle through a lot of hazardous weather at an alarming speed, Johansson’s character reacting to the piece of cake she has just eaten, etc. This film absorbed me in a way few other movies do right now, and it’s great to see something so cinematically daring as this. The fact that it got made in this day and age feels like a miracle.
This movie has proven to be divisive among moviegoers who are easily bored by its languid pace, and perhaps they yearn for a movie as noisy as something directed by Michael Bay. I’m really glad that “Under the Skin” has provoked such passionate responses because it takes chances and doesn’t conform to the Hollywood norm which filmmakers in general can’t always escape from. It provides one of the more unique experiences I have had at the movies recently, and it is great to see Jonathan Glazer back behind the camera after a surprisingly long hiatus. We missed you buddy and keep up the great work.