There are great films and terrible films, and while there are far too many of the latter and the majority land somewhere in the middle no movie lover is suffering from a lack of quality cinema. But rarer than films we love are the ones that seep into the fleshy fibers of our brains and hearts and take up residency for an extended period of time. More than a simple memory they instead become fodder for active thoughts, things we mull over and re-experience again and again as we work through the film’s secrets and intentions.
Under the Skin is one of those unforgettable movies that promises to stay with you long after the end credits have rolled.
It spoils nothing to say that Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed visitor from… elsewhere, and that she’s arrived in Glasgow, Scotland with a very specific mission. Specific, but not entirely clear. After relieving a seemingly paralyzed woman of her clothes and dressing in them herself, Johansson’s character (who we’ll call Milly going forward because why not) begins to prowl the streets of the city behind the wheel of a white panel van. She’s looking for men, the kind that won’t be missed anytime soon, to bring back to her ramshackle abode with the unspoken promise of sex. Instead Milly leads them hypnotically into an inky black morass that will be their doom. And then she goes out to do it all again.
Shadowing her is a silent, leather-clad man on a motorcycle. Like a vampire’s familiar he procures things for her and cleans up her messes when necessary, but this is far from a master and servant arrangement. Milly has a job to do, and his is to make sure she continues to do it. Her needs begin and end with an attractive body and a set of wheels, leaving no room for empathy, attraction or distraction, but as viewers begin to piece together more about her, Milly’s eyes open progressively wider to the experience of being human.
As it’s revealed what happens to the naked men left floating in their nebulous purgatory, she perhaps unintentionally develops an interest in the species she’s inhabiting and abducting. Where earlier she was more intrigued by an inquisitive ant than by the single tear drop escaping a human victim’s eye, now she’s taking time to truly watch the people around her. Like a curvier, sexier Starman, she becomes curious about our world and struggles to take it in by sampling mankind’s various wares. By the time she meets a sweetly quiet man (Adam Pearson) with a disfigured face it becomes clear she may soon be unemployed.
Jonathan Glazer’s film is a gorgeous piece of film-making that leaves the narrative heavy-lifting to the viewers as it eschews a traditional setup and instead relies on visuals to clue us in as the story progresses. Expect complaints similar to those hurled at Upstream Color, that the story is unclear or convoluted, but such accusations are as baseless here as they were with Shane Carruth’s film. The details may be elusive, but the steadily engrossing narrative is clear.
The key is in the visuals, and it’s no mistake that the first image viewers see is the formation of an eye-like structure overlooking what may be a planet. We’re experiencing an unknown entity, meaning both Milly and the film, purely through our senses. She’s doing the same as she observes without preconceived notions or background noise, like a nature documentary building a relationship with the world around her, and we’re the wildlife on display. There’s no exposition to explain the journey, and instead we’re left to piece it together from long, meditative takes, the repetition of actions and the performance of the film’s lead.
And it truly is an impressively peculiar performance. Johansson conveys character through minimal dialogue, not in what she says but in how she says it. The shifting tone when her prey prove unattainable, the upward lilting when she discovers an unfamiliar curiosity. Most of Johansson’s accomplishment though is done in silence. Her expressions, or lack thereof, her body movement and impossibly even the life in her eyes shifts and reveals the growing and maturing awareness within.
Glazer’s film, only his third feature in fourteen years (after Sexy Beast and Birth), encourages comparisons to filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Nicolas Roeg, but it’s disingenuous to resist giving him his own due. He’s crafted an alien experience in the streets of an existing city, an accomplishment so few science fiction films attempt let alone succeed at. The visuals, performances and deceptively mundane action are wrapped in a score (by Mica Levi) that feels written and performed by artists uninformed by the restrictions of musical knowledge. Jagged strings and lonely drum beats slap our ears around leaving us unsettled and unaware of what’s to come.
The haunting music is perfectly suited to the film’s visuals and sequences that alternately bewilder and terrify. One scene offers up cinema’s most horrifying portrayal of a drowning involving a couple, their infant and their dog, and it does so through fiercely realistic events and a presentation mirrored to Milly’s complete lack of emotional concern. It’s far from the film’s only lean towards horror, and as with the others it frightens through mood and feeling as opposed to traditionally scare tactics.
The only cliche attached to Under the Skin is that it’s truly not for everyone. Seriously, nine out of every ten people reading this are going to hate it. Its pacing is languorous, it lacks a proper protagonist and it’s aggressive in telling you what you can do with your traditional narrative structure. But it also appeals to needs that most movies refuse to satisfy, ones a steady diet of Hollywood films may have numbed into to a vegetative state. It makes us uncomfortable, challenges us to think and forces us into the shoes and feet of discoverers in a new world. It wants to burrow beneath your epidermal layer. Do yourself a favor, and let it in.
The Upside: Scarlett Johansson; gorgeous photography; Mica Levi’s absorbing and horrifyingly alien score; makes viewers think in order to connect narrative dots; occasionally terrifying
The Downside: Utterly unconcerned with a traditional narrative; Scottish accents sometimes unintelligible
On the Side: Adam Pearson gave a humorous and honest interview in The Guardian recently. Read it after seeing the movie.