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Under the Skin - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Under the Skin
Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B-

There's a lot left unanswered in Under the Skin -- far more than in the Michael Faber novel of the same name -- and this is clearly deliberate. In the trailers, featured quotes by critics proclaim director Jonathan Glazer (Birth) "heir to Stanley Kubrick," and after seeing this film, it feels very much like that's what Glazer is going for. He misses that particular mark just a tad, leaving so much to the imagination at the expense of cohesion, but it stays with you. It's not so much hypnotic (as the trailer might suggest) as it is unnerving.

Scarlett Johansson is the nameless protagonist, first appearing in the opening sequence as nothing more than a dot of bright light, which, after morphing into something vaguely resembling some kind of celestial eclipse, turns into an extreme close-up of her eyeball. The camera stays focused on it just long enough for it to become creepy.

The story exists in a realistically gritty place, which still manages to be otherworldly: it all takes place in Scotland, full of characters who are technically speaking English, but to American audiences, might as well be speaking something else. Only a few words here and there are caught in the midst of what is otherwise lost as gibberish in the thick accent. Somehow our alien friend, played by Johansson, speaks with a far more decipherable, and elegant, British accent. What we slowly come to surmise is that she is not of this world, and she is here to seduce and prey on humans. They are always men, although why -- as is a common theme -- is never revealed. There is one sequence in which all the passers-by she's eyeing seem to be women, but we never see her lure a woman into her van.

Most of the world we see her in is amidst the soggy Scottish landscape, or the soggy Glasgow cityscape. It all feels very much of this world, except for her place and oddly aloof behavior in it. She only smiles and acts flirty once she gets someone to come to the door of the van and offers men a ride. The only truly alien environment we see, for which (of course) we are offered no logical explanation, is inside the building she's lured the men into after she's driven them there. In there, it's pitch black; she puts the men under a spell as she undresses. She walks backward atop a reflective black surface, which turns into a thick liquid for the victims only, and they are submerged. Only once does the point of view shift, to one of the victims, seen below the surface, and what happens when he sees another named man floating several feet away from him is creepy indeed.

Not much demand is placed on Johansson's acting ability. For the most part, she just stares blankly and is stoic. She's almost unrecognizable in her dark wig and thick red lipstick. This isn't her movie so much as it is Jonathan Glazer's. You don't think about the acting, such as it is, while watching this movie. You spend a lot of time wondering what the hell is going on. Or, getting bored. There are many extended shots of nothing in particular happening. This movie certainly won't be for everyone.

There is a shift in the narrative, however, which is so subtle (as is a lot in this movie) that it can take a while to realize it's happened, even though it's arguably the very crux of the story. Our mystifying alien is moved, somehow, by one of her would-be victims -- a man with a severely disfigured face. "Moved" is maybe not even the right word, but we don't know what the word is, because whatever her motivations are, they are by definition alien. In any case, her encounter with this man breaks her pattern of behavior. Instead of continuing to find victims, she goes into hiding, her male-alien counterparts -- none of whom have any lines -- in pursuit on their motorcycles. There's a vague sense that at least one of these men is some kind of authority over her, but there's no way of knowing. Their interactions are limited to close-up staring at each other's eyes. There's a lot of close-ups of Scarlett Johansson's eye -- although, after that first, startling, clear one, all the rest are cast in dark shadows.

The best thing Under the Skin has going for it is that it never, ever goes in any predictable direction. Johansson's performance, at the very least, underscores her alien nature. In one scene, she attempts to eat regular food at a restaurant. Like most scenes, very little action takes place in a long, extended shot. But never before has something so simple as a piece of cake on a fork been fraught with so much suspense.

For the most part, though, this movie is quite slow going. It will easily test the patience of many. It did mine, to a moderate degree. I would argue that the ending provides satisfying payoff, making it worth the tedium. This is a movie ripe for discussion, if for no other reason than the multitude of theories left for the viewer to propose as to its meaning. The very last shot, though, is emblematic of the film as a whole: the camera pans up to falling snow, and just stays there, watching the snow fall, until we're left to wonder how much time we'll spend watching just this. For some, I suppose, that provides some time to let the events of the previous scene, as well as the entire movie, sink in.

 Scarlett Johansson is just the outer casing for an alien UNDER THE SKIN.

Overall: B
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