A visual stunner whose technical brilliance can’t mask the fact that the proceedings are rambling and fatally undernourished from a narrative standpoint. I recommend the film, but with severe reservations.
UNDER THE SKIN was based on a 2001 novel by Michael Faber about an alien in the body of an attractive woman who picks up men in rural Scotland and takes them to an underground factory that turns the corpses into alien chow. This 2013 movie adaptation was directed and co-written by England’s Jonathan Glazer, whose work only grows freakier with each passing film; 2000’s SEXY BEAST was a pleasingly eccentric thriller and ‘04’s BIRTH a deeply pervy art film, while UNDER THE SKIN far outdoes its predecessors in non-commercial weirdness.
The film is also notable as the first-ever instance of full frontal nudity by Scarlett Johansson, a fact that by itself has rendered it a near-legend in some circles.
In a remote shack in rural Scotland an alien garbed as an attractive brunette woman hits the road in a van. Cruising through Glasgow she picks up several unsuspecting men, all of whom she takes back to the shack, ostensibly for sex. Once inside the place, however, the guys are submerged in a lightless void where an unspecified something happens to them.
The woman finds herself growing increasingly fascinated by the world she’s been thrust into, and evinces a most unexpected sense of compassion upon luring a freakishly deformed man into her van. She takes him back to the shed as usual, but allows the guy to escape–only to have him tracked down and killed by the woman’s alien superior, who takes the form of a black leather clad biker.
From there the woman either looses or abandons her truck on a country road and shacks up with a comely man. But her superior won’t hear of such a thing, and instigates a pursuit through the wilderness, at the end of which we learn the true meaning of the title.
Where does this film go wrong? I’d question the wisdom of revealing at the outset that the protagonist is an alien, something the Michael Faber novel wisely took its time to unveil. Furthermore, the novel’s explanations (such as precisely what happens to the men that are lured to their death and why) and connective tissue have been completely stripped away, which robs the narrative of any real form or structure. It seems Jonathan Glazer was counting on his visual mastery to keep things afloat–and for the mesmerizing first 30 minutes it does.
What Glazer provides is a superlative example of visual storytelling (with what little dialogue there is being largely incomprehensible, spoken as it is in heavy Scottish accents). The subtly oft-kilter wide shots of cinematographer Daniel Landin render the commonplace alien, as does Johnnie Burn’s sound design, which among other things provides every scene with its own distinct ambiance.
The lead performance of Scarlett Johansson is also instrumental to the film’s effectiveness, with a distant yet highly sexy and charismatic air (if the production notes are to be believed, most if not all of Johansson’s pick ups were filmed with actual passerby via hidden cameras)–and a good thing, as Johansson plays possibly the least sympathetic heroine in film history, callously leading numerous men to their death and at one point leaving an infant on a beach to starve to death and/or get swept away by waves.
The net result of all this is a profound sense of otherworldly strangeness that may well be unsurpassed. From a purely atmospheric standpoint the film ranks with nightmarish classics like ERASERHEAD and STALKER (high praise indeed!), but in most other effects I’d judge it a bit too much of a good thing. Watch a half hour of UNDER THE SKIN and you’ll think you’re viewing a masterpiece of the freakish and bizarre, but at a full 108 minutes the effect is somewhat deadening.
UNDER THE SKIN
Film4/British Film Institute
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Producers: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson
Screenplay: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
(Based on a novel by Michael Faber)
Cinematography: Daniel Landin
Editing: Paul Watts
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mckay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan