Under the Skin Review
Just say no—even if it is Scarlett Johansson
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin works as a terrifying and compelling mixture of science-fiction, horror, and humanity introspective, finding influence of both Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson. Jonathan Glazer’s (Birth, Sexy Beast) newest independent film is a measure of new territory compared to the director’s earlier work, but the material covered in Under the Skin could challenge even the most experienced helmers. The noise is kept to a minimum with little and hushed dialogue, unlike the foul mouths in Glazer’s Sexy Beast. The “science-fiction-almost-taking-itself-too-seriously” aspect of Birth certainly plays largely in Under the Skin, but the duo of two leads is left in favor of Scarlett Johansson. Her descent from apex predator to prey is a breathtaking journey across Scotland—a land equally as beautiful, mysterious and unyielding as she.
Scarlett Johansson (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Don Jon)carries the entire film from beginning to end as an extraterrestrial roaming Scotland on an endless hunt for sustenance, of which she appears to have an endless supply. Her sustenance, as the plot would have it, is men and a girl’s gotta eat. Under the Skin would show that most men are nothing but mere, literal meat sacks save for a precious, redeemable few who might prove an appeal in humanity to Johansson’s character. Humanity, as it seems, would serve as more of a weakness to her cold, fearless, feeding frenzy. Hidden cameras were placed in the van driven by the alluring alien so that real men could be used instead of actors. This risky technique played off beautifully with Johansson disappearing into her role. Is it truly improvisation if the role requires a quantum of seduction? Her performance exceeds the script as she completely owns the character.
The opening sequence has a strict, even aesthetic of lights—not unlike sequences featured in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in particular. As an audience member, there’s already a feeling of horror with the fate of her mark almost certain. Each sequence involves Johansson undressing to her lingerie and walking backwards with perfect synchronization. The male mark then helplessly follows her as he slowly enters a dark pool where he then floats in a stasis of sorts. This certainly hearkens to The Shining’s bathroom scene (as Kubrick had a bathroom-feature scene in most of his films) where Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is greeted by a naked woman in a bathtub who lures him into an unforgettable embrace. These sequences refuse to rely on background imagery and instead fill in the negative space with mirrors in a black room.
The extended, drawn-out scenes of silence mixed with singular, orchestral tones remind the viewer of Jonny Greenwood’s (of Radiohead) scores from Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. It’s no surprise then that Glazer directed music videos for some of the 1990s biggest alternative acts: Radiohead, Blur, Nick Cave, Massive Attack, and Jamiroquai. Most recently, Glazer directed the bullet-filled music video “Treat Me Like Your Mother” in 2009 with The Dead Weather.
Under the Skin works on many levels and genres which beg for multiple viewings. Although some shots and scenes go on at length, the horror and suspense never fully run off track. Johansson’s performance as an atypical fish-out-of-water reminds audiences that her range isn’t limited to blockbusters (this is more of a man-into-ominous-pool story) and the talent displayed in Lost in Translation and Girl with a Pearl Earring has only expanded with experience.