Jonathan Glazer’s “out of the box” film Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson is a film that almost defies description, but at its core the movie is intensely stark with a terrible grim beauty. The film could be categorized as science fiction noir for lack of a better term, and Glazer may just have, along with his star, the wildly talented Johansson, invented a new genre.
Before getting into the basic plot of the film, as understood by only one viewing, it should be noted that this film has a minimum of dialogue, explanation, music, and main characters. These minimal things all combine to make one of the most powerful and mesmerizing films of 2014. This “lower” budget film, it cost an estimated $13 million to make, draws the audience in, slowly and steadily.
Under the Skin starts with a round circle with what appears to be rod entering the open center of the perfect “donut” shape. This morphs into a motorcycle helmet of a bike rider who stops at a roadside parking area and goes down into the dark to retrieve a woman’s body. He takes the unmoving woman and puts her in the back of a van parked at the layby.
After the body is dumped into the van, the scene turns into a stark white room with a naked Scarlett Johansson who steadily and emotionlessly strips the clothes off the woman. Two things happen to make the viewer take pause. A single tear trickles down from the “dead” woman’s left eye and Johansson’s character finds an ant crawling on the woman’s pubis, or just above it.
Johansson retrieves the ant and studies it with an air of complete detachment. The character seems to be an alien who is searching for men to pick up and then…what? Sacrifice? Not likely. It seems that the “female” alien is a living version of a human venus flytrap. When Johansson’s character picks men to entice with promises of sex, the ones who are “ready and able” sink into a deep, shiny, ebony colored floor, never to be seen again.
The one victim who escapes this fate, is the only victim who does not appear able to consummate sexual congress with anyone. The two main characters of the film seem to have a simple relationship. The female traps, eats (?) and moves on to the next victim. The motorcycle rider appears to be the cleanup crew, facilitator and controller of Johansson’s inhuman “seductress.” At one point, when the alien female goes missing, the bike rider seems to be searching for her.
Under the Skin moves at an almost agonisingly slow pace, but the action is not boring. It is almost impossible to take eyes off the events on the screen. Scarlett Johansson, like the film, is stark, intense and beautiful. Despite an almost total lack of violence and not much spoken dialogue, that can be understood at any rate, the film keeps the audience’s attention captured throughout.
The movie’s conclusion is shocking and probably the most unexpected twist in a film this year. It ends as low key as it starts, but this helps to make even more of an impact with the audience.
The cinematography by Daniel Landin (44 Inch Chest, The Uninvited)is brilliant. The crisp, where needed, images combined with lighting that seemed to show more shades of dark than previously existed in any other films to date are again starkly beautiful. The soundtrack/score added to the intensity of the movie. At one point in the film at least one viewer visibly jerked at one sequence that really was not meant to be a “jump scare,” such was the intensity of this film.
Johansson turned in an award winning performance. Although it must be said, that in the sequences where she appeared naked as the day she was born, the actress looked like a real woman. There was no evidence of weeks spent at the spa and gym to get perfect abs and a toned body that would look more at home on Natasha Romanoff than an alien in Scotland.
The 29 year-old actress also wore a minimum of makeup. Apart from her physical appearance, Scarlett proved that she could master more than a Russian accent. Her command of a “bog standard” aka normal British accent was stunning. No cut glass English “tea and crumpets” plummy vowels came from her lips. Rather, she made the words, pacing, phrasing and pronunciation sound so natural she could be English. For example, in one scene her character asks a potential victim if they are visiting their fam-ah-ly, Brit style. Americans would say fam-ly leaving out the extra syllable. Just as natural as saying, “Pardon?” when the speaker has missed what was just said in the United Kingdom.
British accent aside, the other two noticeable things about the actors and the film itself was its spot on depiction of how the English react to something different or potentially disturbing and that real Scottish people speak so quickly that they cannot be easily understood. The last bit could have been included to make the audience “hear” the Scots speak as Johansson’s character did.
Overall, Under the Skin with its starkly beautiful and intense plot, as well as Scarlett’s performance invented a new genre, science fiction/noir. This Film Four/Lottery funded, British Film Institute offering was nigh on perfect. Perhaps a little bit too long, but the length does not take anything from the film. Glazer’s film should be taught in film schools as the best example of how to make an Art House film that works. The film opens on April 18 in selected theaters nationwide. This movie should not be missed. See the trailer below.
By Michael Smith
AMC Town Square 18