Review: ‘Under The Skin’

Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay

In Select Theaters on April 4, 2014

She takes an escalator down into a shopping mall. She stands still and straight, slowly approaching a distinctly opposite, entropic concourse of people below. She, from the vague set of clues we’ve been given, is Scarlett Johansson, sporting uncombed black hair and an illustrious fur coat. She may not even be a “she” at all.

Thus lies one of the many fundamental ambiguities in director Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, whose title implies something more than the superficial is at work. This woman, or at least female anatomized body, speaks very little, never squints into the sun, and is mysteriously followed by a speeding male motorcyclist. Narratively speaking, questions rise with frequency, symptomatically inverse to clarity. The only answers we get come from these small sustained visual clues.

Under-the-Skin-posterWhich means you either take stock in every magnetic image or you throw them away as a jumbled mess of highly stylized concepts. The latter wouldn’t be ridiculous considering Glazer’s first two films Birth and Sexy Beast, along with his resume of numerous commercials, share similar stylistic sensibilities. Under The Skin opens with a white dot, for example, which grows and transforms into an ocular motif. A faint voice can be heard, as though someone is reciting an eye test. You’re not quite sure. Like Dennis Villenueve’s recent Enemy, it’s better to let these images marinate with you then fully comprehend them.

The story that eventually bobs at the surface is based off Michel Faber’s eponymous novel, about a female alien who hunts the Scottish highlands in a vehicle for unassuming single men. In this adaptation, Johansson, we find, is this extraterrestrial predator, driving an unsuspecting white van through the cold nightlife of Glasgow. Where in Her Johansson seduced with just her voice, here she just needs a few stoic glances.

The sexual trap begins by harmlessly asking driving directions to strangers on the road. She offers her victims rides to their own destinations, interactions frequently captured by hidden surveillance cameras. That’s because some of these men are real Glasgow citizens completely unaware they’re speaking to a high-profile actress, let alone being filmed in a movie. The unfortunate ones who decide to hitchhike meet hauntingly fatalistic ends, ultimately wading nude into a black-holed portal. The next day she continues to scan for more.

The only intrigue to this monotonous voyeuristic ritual comes in this woman’s slow evolutionary humanity. The more comfortably acclimated to this body she becomes, the more she exhibits a desire for intimacy, a sense of compassion. One of her victims has a largely deformed face. She instead compliments his hands. Later, she finds a deeper mutual connection with a man who shelters her from the rain.

It’s possible Glazer is digging for deeper thematic material here. Under The Skin has the luxury of being at once a social experiment and social critique. Without more than a few sentences, Johansson’s pale face and cherry lipstick are seemingly enough to lure Scottish men into feverish sexual frenzies. Brother From Another Planet has a shared quality when it drops an alien black man into the streets of 1980s Harlem. He doesn’t speak a word but gets an earful from a racially charged New York population. In minutes he’s the ultimate magnet for prejudice.

And so it might be said of Johansson’s character, this enigmatic movie-star-like wanderer. By the climax, when this alien has fully tapped into her feminized identity, her state of mind left unguarded, she curiously, perhaps predictably, becomes a man’s sexual prey. How quickly the strange can become so desperately familiar.

– Jake Kring-Schreifels

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