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'Under the Skin' review: Driving Around in Vans With Boys

Scarlett perfects the thousand yard stare...
Scarlett perfects the thousand yard stare...

Under the Skin


Under the Skin

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Starring: Scarlett Johansson

Release Date: April 11 2014

The Plot: A seductive woman drives alone around Scotland in the pursuit of young men. In her wake are a lot of missing person posters and a motorcycle gang whose sole purpose seems to be to erase all evidence of her existence.

The Film: As we were exiting last week's screening of Jonathan Glazer's adaptation of Michael Faber's Under the Skin a good friend of mine (Tim Hall - Seattle PI movie blog) said to me that movies need a story - a plot. Maybe something resembling a character that we can identify with. Which seems perfectly obvious, and I agreed with him. At the time the movie we were walking out of clearly cared about none of those things.

In fact, Under the Skin seemed to beg the question - what exactly constitutes a movie? Story? Drama? Dialog? Character? None of the above?

For a motion picture Under the Skin is constantly in motion - we're seated front and center as we tag along with Scarlett Johansson's Isserley, (her character's name in Faber's book, though keeping true to the ambiguity of the film NONE of the actors on Under the Skin's IMDB page have character names listed) as she patrols the damp Edinburgh streets in her van looking for young men to pick up. Not that she's looking for company, these guys are merely objects to her. She in turn plays the part of an object to them. A strange woman offering a ride, some small talk, and the promise of uncomplicated carnal mischief. A ritual we are familiar with - but issuing forth out of a character we are completely unfamiliar with.

Her only hint of personality comes through when she's chatting up boozy Scottish boys - which, lucky for her, don't seem to be in short supply. When she disposes of the men she entices into her van, she disposes of her false personality as well, and the dead-eyed search for more continues.

It's a ride I doubt many people would pay money to take. Those looking for premium celebrity skin will find it here, but at a much higher toll than expected. Johansson is a perfect bit of casting, and we have to praise the actress for finding the courage to take on a role that exposes so much of her body and so little of her soul. I think most of us - men and women - are interested in following Scarlett to whatever fate she may have prepared for us. Once the bait has been taken and the snare is ready to snap, Glazer keeps the camera moving forward, focused mostly on Johannson's famous behind as the actress peels off her many layers of clothes, and the men pursuing her in turn do the same.

Proverbs 7 in the King James bible says this: With her much fair speech she caused him to yield , with the flattering of her lips she forced him. He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks; Till a dart strike through his liver; as a bird hasteth to the snare, and knoweth not that it is for his life.

A fitting Proverb.

So what exactly does she do with these guys? To spill that secret here wouldn't be wise, and I doubt I've got the literary ability to handle it properly anyway - if I even fully comprehended what I was watching at all. This is alien terrain best left to be explored through the medium of cinema. Suffice it to say if we thought this character was a void, we might be surprised at how deep this void really goes.

Under the Skin treats the transaction as a ritual, as indicated by Mica Levi's creepy, vaguely ceremonial score for the film.

In almost every scene of the movie - and yes, I think we can still call this a movie - the lighting is all wrong. Frazer purposely chooses the wrong time of day and the wrong weather for filming in. Under the Skin is shot in mostly natural light - but of the predawn variety. Well past what cinematographers refer to as "The Golden Hour." At night the streets are an Agent Orange bath of sodium lamp light. We either find ourselves in the very real, very gloomy, light of early morning Scotland, or in the false light of the Edinburgh streets after dark. There are literally two sides to Isserley's persona - absence and presence. One true. One false. Both illustrated in the lighting palette of the film.

Though the title is fitting to the film's general theme, this is a movie that, given enough time and patience, will get under your skin. If it doesn't, then it's just going to get on your nerves, and I apologize for encouraging anyone to see it who probably shouldn't have.

There's a scene with a family picnicking on a rock pile beach on the North Sea that is particularly frightening - in both consequence and Isserley's disconnection from the consequence. Later in the film she offers a ride to a 26 year old man with severe facial birth defects. It's one of the most moving, profoundly unsettling scenes in the movie. If only because we're viewing this poor man through the eyes of a human being - thinking of the cruelties he's suffered, and how much the dagger of Scarlett's advances are going to wound this already wounded soul even further once the jig is up.

What at first seems exploitative, and indelicate on the part of the filmmaker, might not be if we view the situation through Isserley's position. In her eyes all men are the same. She doesn't dial back the flirting to fit the prospective victim. The same disconnect she had with the fate of the family on the beach, she has with the kid with the misshapen head. She sees a mark - not a deformity. We see the deformity.

The scene is heartbreaking, and honest, and somehow humane - even though it seems like it can't possibly be. I wouldn't doubt that it turns out to be the single most memorable scene I see in any movie in 2014.

Where we go next is best left up to you to discover. There is something of a second act to Under the Skin, and much to my surprise, an actual ending to the feature. Though I was absolutely certain this was a film that could go black at any time, in the middle of any scene, and cut to a chilly "Directed by Jonathan Glazer" - it didn't.

What appeared to be an aimless film did indeed have a target after all.

The Verdict: Under the Skin is one of those weird, devastatingly boring movies film critics are always tricking the public into wasting their money on. Notice that I didn't say another one of those weird, devastatingly boring movies. This film isn't like anything else. If you can appreciate a cinematic experience completely foreign to anything you've seen up to this point, I encourage you to track this movie down in your local arthouse theater this weekend.

Kudos to Scarlett Johansson for taking on a role so far removed from anything she's tried in her career before this. For my part, I want the Criterion Collection to pursue this film ruthlessly to add to their Blu-ray collection. It's the only destination that makes any sense for this movie.

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