Under the Skin

This past weekend turned into a bit of a Scarlett Johansson film festival for me, and if you’ll forgive my break in protocol—I’m going to review the one I saw most recently first. It’s been roughly 12 hours since I experienced Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” at my local multiplex, and it was such an astonishing aural and visual experience, that I’ve decided my take on “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” can wait a bit. I need to talk about “Under the Skin” while it’s fresh—it’s that kind of film. There is no question, as I write this in mid-April, that the first feature(his third overall)in nearly a decade from Mr. Glazer will make my Top Ten films list by the end of the year. But it’s also something that I’m recommending that almost no one I know go see. Why? Mini-diatribe time: audiences are lazy. I knew going into this that “Under the Skin” would be a challenging work, based on the limited coverage of it that I read, plus my respect for the director’s first two releases. It was my hunch that the focus I had to bring to the movie would ultimately be rewarding—and I was correct on that. But only true film-lovers, and the extremely patient and curious, should seek out “Under the Skin”—it is far from mass entertainment. I don’t expect it to last at my suburban multiplex longer than a week.

Let me paint a picture for you. I sat in a mostly empty, cavernous theater for “Under the Skin”, with a big screen and a wonderful sound system. I counted 5 people at the showing in total, including myself—all men, all sitting alone(ScarJo factor? I wonder.). Having some idea of what I was about to see, I silently predicted that two guys would leave before the film was over. Truth be told, only one left, but since the gentleman sitting closest to me was constantly looking at his i-Phone and ultimately fell asleep(his snores confirmed this)—I’m counting him as an unofficial evacuee. “Under the Skin” is a challenging adaptation(it’s based on a 2000 novel by Michel Faber), but I believe there is a relatively clear narrative and that audience members who pay attention can certainly follow it. It’s icy, it’s got a leisurely pace, and at times it’s downright scary. Or maybe creepy is the right word. Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and now Jonathan Glazer, are among the handful of directors that consistently freak me out. Will you hate me if I say the trio knows how to get under one’s skin? One more thing before I give you a brief plot synopsis: I can’t give you any character names from the film—there aren’t any. Plus, there’s very little dialogue. And subsequently, I learned that many of the “actors” were passers-by. Fascinating stuff.

“Under the Skin” is a science fiction film set in Scotland. A beautiful, dark-haired woman(Ms. Johansson)is introduced as she apparently “takes over” the body of a virtual double that is laid out before her. The woman removes and puts on the immobile female’s clothes, and watches mutely and dispassionately as the semiconscious girl sheds a single tear. The raven-haired beauty soon gets behind the wheel of a van, and sets out asking young men for “directions”. Of course, what red-blooded male wouldn’t take out a couple of minutes to assist such a gorgeous creature? And we watch as a number of males are gently coaxed into the vehicle, and then taken to an isolated “room” where they seemingly willingly, and even enthusiastically, meet a disquieting and unusual fate. What happens to them? At first, it’s somewhat unclear. But eventually, their “destinations” become a bit more certain. But then something changes. After watching in horror as the beautiful woman does nothing to save a husband, his wife, and most likely their crying toddler, from a terrible demise—the woman actually takes pity on a deformed man who she coerces into her web. The man’s freedom is brief however, as a silent man on a motorcycle corrects the dark-haired beauty’s “failure”. We are introduced to this biker man early in the film, and now he and some biker partners, seek out the beautiful woman after she goes “on the lam”.

There’s so much more I could give you, but I feel I’ve already divulged too much. It really is a simple basic story with a nice dollop of mystery throughout. What happens to these men? What is the beautiful woman’s purpose? Who is the man on the motorcycle? Some of these questions are answered, but your imagination must come into play too. I have my theory, and I would like to believe I’m close to the mark. Feel free to join me in the comment section if you wish to exchange ideas. Is there an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”-type scenario in play with “Under the Skin”. I believe that’s part of it. Are “aliens” trying to stealthily populate the earth? I think that’s likely too. But “Under the Skin” is not some cheesy, sci-fi, freak-out. There is a very high level of style and artistry at work here, and the film is as gorgeous as it is terrifying.

Cinematographer Daniel Landin’s work is just as striking as Harris Savides’ was on Glazer’s “Birth” from 2004. The music score is mesmerizing and the script is not only bare-bones, but apparently somewhat improvised. I read after attending “Under the Skin” that some of Scarlett’s “pick-up” dialogues were shot with a hidden camera involving men who just happened by. If it’s true, it plays flawlessly. And Ms. Johansson is not only marvelous, but she’s on quite a roll. More than a decade after acquiring effusive praise for critical darling “Lost in Translation”, there were long periods were I felt she wasn’t living up to her talent. But with her sparse dialogue lead in “Under the Skin” in such close proximity to her only-dialogue, almost-lead in last year’s “Her”, it now appears ScarJo is back on track. Can you believe she’s not yet 30! What she accomplishes in “Under the Skin” is extremely brave and admirable for a performer. The hard work won’t go unnoticed. This will be one of the finest releases of 2014.     Grade:  A



4 comments on “Under the Skin

  1. My husband loves Scarlet Johansson. Never even heard about this movie coming out. Thanks for the review!!!!!

    • I would think a lot of husbands love Scarlett Johansson, Ilene! Remember, I stated there were just 5 individual men in the theater. But seriously, this film will be a very difficult sit for the impatient…be warned. ML

  2. Brilliant review Mark, very tantalizing. Not sure I will be able to catch this in a cinema this week, but maybe it will be out later in Australia and I will have a chance then.
    I wonder if Jonathan Glazer will speak out at some stage about what his intentions were for the mysteries presented in the film. That might make it all too easy though I suppose.

    • Thanks so much, Simon. I snuck out to this while the kids were at school on early Monday afternoon. And yes, it would be too easy—I usually prefer to hypothesize on my own. Sometimes a direct answer from the creator makes it that much less exotic. ML

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