Under the Skin

Under the Skin photo starrating-5stars.jpgA mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.

This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.

The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.

There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.

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23 Responses to “Under the Skin”

  1. Emily Crawford-Margison Says:

    I like your writing style. I wasn’t sure what to make of this movie but now I think it’s worth a viewing. thanks =)

  2. I definitely agree. I wanted to see this film from the second I saw the trailer. Leave it to Jonathan Glazer to make a 30 second spot so impactful. A friend asked me what it was about because I was so excited to see it. I really wish I hadn’t looked up the synopsis to tell her. I feel like it might have been even better, had I known nothing at all. That said, it is such a good film. I’ve already pre-ordered it from Amazon. Glazer may have only made 3 films, but each one has immense style, atmosphere, acting and unique story lines. I suppose I don’t mind waiting another 9 years for his next film if he maintains this level of quality.

    • After I saw the film I started reading the reviews. Virtually every single one reveals details better left unsaid.

      We live in a media age where spoilers are so easy to come by. It’s hard to avoid Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, et al

  3. Interesting review, Mark. As a Glaswegian, I’m curious to see how they utilise the city’s locations but you’re comparison to Nic Roeg is the selling point here. I’m going to try and catch this very soon.

    • Your being from Scotland will make the production particularly personal. In the last few days the film has only increased in my estimation. I just might have to see it again.

      Along with Enemy (with which it shares some stylistic similarities), one of the very best pictures of the year so far for me.

  4. I actually was not big on Enemy. I went with a bunch of people including my girlfriend and I had to hear it from each of them how bad my movie choice sucked. I tried to defend myself but when the entire theater walked out laughing and complaining…I was truly on my own. Worst part was that I did not even enjoy it despite appreciating the genius and stylistic pleasures behind it. So, well made movie but certainly not for everyone! Some folks were even considering trying to get their money back!

    Point is, I hope that this differs! I do hear it has a certain scene where Scarlett does something she has never done before….that alone should sell some tickets haha! I hope to watch it as soon as possible!

  5. Man I am really looking forward to Under the Skin, you haven’t made whatever wait I already have any easier!!! 🙂

    Good review

  6. garylee828 Says:

    I heard this movie was bad, but I will now plan to see it when I can.

    • Like any challenging film, a lot of people don’t “get it” which actually makes me love the film even more. 🙂

      • garylee828 Says:

        I tend to like a lot of films like that, as well, so hopefully I will like it; i listened to some of the score tracks over on YouTube and it has an eery sound as you pointed out. I’ll report back when I watch.

      • On Spotify you can listen to the entire soundtrack. The track “Love” is particularly memorable.

  7. martin250 Says:

    am very curious about this film. the meditative part is a plus but the Sci-fi aspect will make me see this.
    Scarlett Johansson’s career seems to be on an uprise- CA:Winter Soldier, Under The Skin, and i saw the trailer for Lucy which could be a box office success.

  8. I read this review and immediately got excited. It was brilliantly written in a way that intrigued me without giving away any spoilers. I appreciated that when I saw the movie, cause I didn’t know what to expect. This was a cinematic masterpiece. It was so chilling, eery and real. I was mesmerized the whole time. Scarlett was also amazing, I couldn’t figure out what was going on! I loved it. When the movie was over, it all made sense. 4 1/2 stars.

  9. “The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. ”

    Well said.

    And. “In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.”

    Even better said. Under the Skin really is a beautiful piece of art, isn’t it?

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