Under the Skin written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer, directed by Jonathan Glazer (Film4, British Film Institute, Silver Reel, R, 108 min)
Starring Scarlett Johansson.
In Appreciation of Art
Jonathan Glazer cut Under the Skin from a different cloth. To approach this film as you would any standard movie from Hollywood is to miss the point categorically. Therefore, this review needs to pivot in order to capture this piece of art well.
So let’s get plot out of the way. We won’t need much more than a paragraph as Under the Skin intentionally withholding in its plot; it’s not the point of the movie.
A Broad Sketch
As a broadest sketch, Under the Skin reveals an alien female life form (Scarlett Johansson) wandering Scotland in search of isolated men to seduce and entrap. This process eventually raises internal doubt with the female and she goes off the grid in search of her “humanity.” That just about covers it.
But before I go any farther, I must provide some clarification. Under the Skin should never be associated with the sci-fi action films with alien femme fatales, like Species. If you’re looking for that kind of movie, Under the Skin will disappoint you to the highest degree.
But it’s a great film because it’s not really a movie. It seems better classified as a work of art, a visual form with many layers of intriguing texture about which to discuss.
So let’s discuss.
Under the Skin engenders a feeling of alienation in every aspect of its production. It often leans on wide-angled shots of roads where the focus feels like a solitary ant trudging along a path. The viewer senses alienation in the dialogue. For much of the film, the female drives around urban Scotland asking for directions from lonely men. These scenes are ad-libbed with real people, accents thick and arranged against the outside world. The viewer finds it difficult to understand them, especially with the sounds of traffic buzzing in the background.
Alienation also announces its existence in the kind of scenes presented. Without fail, the camera seems to linger a little too long, forcing the viewer into an uncomfortable feeling, like they shouldn’t be there.
The cinematography leans on layering shots that spawn an Impressionistic aesthetic of unreality.
Outside of this visual aesthetic, Under the Skin consistently offers dark, terrifying scenes. Of note, the beach scene offers heart wrenching visuals, to the point of us pausing the movie to control our emotions. The utter deplorableness is intentional. Hard to watch, but gripping when taken together.
And ultimately, Under the Skin advocates for an interesting gender study. The female wreaks havoc when she’s in control. Men orbit her like a boat stuck in a whirlpool, and her unbroken resolve allows these men to force themselves into the trap.
But when she begins to question this strategy, the power shifts and the predator becomes victim. There’s a sense in which power and control are always in the balance and violence exists at either end of the spectrum.
Behind all of these threads resides an intriguing performance from Scarlett Johansson. Her character emits an intentional isolation, as if her thoughts and feelings are one step removed from reality. She faces everything with an intrigue about why it exists, why we all function the way we do. But she also refuses to show a crack in the armor for most of the film.
Under the Skin is not for everyone. It’s more of an auterist exploration of alienation and gender. If you want to watch a film for its artistic qualities more so than for its entertainment, this film is for you.
Verdict: 4 out of 5