Under the Skin (2014)
Dir: Jonathan Glazer
Scarlett Johansson takes a break from the brawn of big-budget blockbusters to ably command the screen in Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s long-in-the-works third feature. Science fiction and Scottish miserablism combine in this visually stunning but narratively light film that’s long on haunting imagery and short on dialogue.
Johansson stars as the unnamed lead, an alien who haunts the Scottish countryside in a white panel van in search of lonely men with few societal connections. There’s a motorcyclist who acts as her handler of sorts, a dilapidated building that serves as home base, and the aforementioned van where much of the film takes place in and around. And then… things occur. Without being dismissive of the film, it’s more a tone poem and less a traditional narrative, and to detail what little incident occurs would likely be a disservice to those that seek it out.
Casting Johansson is a bit of a coup, in that – much like Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly with Brad Pitt – an emerging, ambitious and experimental director can anchor their film to the relative safety of a worldwide movie star to get it made while still pushing narrative boundaries. The effect can be a double-edged blade: pushing the movie out to a wider audience than it may have had otherwise, but potentially alienating those new audience members. Regardless, Johansson slots into her role nicely and underplays many of the movie’s (comparatively) big moments with admirable restraint. Stoicism reigns over hysterics, and much of her character’s arc happens behind her big expressive eyes.
Many of the rest of the roles are filled out by non- or first-time actors who often speak in a thick Scottish brogue. Combined this with the many evocative shots of city- and country-scapes, and it lends the film a sense of gritty realism (you can almost smell the woods or the cigarettes smoked!) that brushes up nicely against the science fiction elements and creates a truly unnerving experience. Some scenes and sequences in Under the Skin are pure nightmare fuel; they prove you don’t need shock scares or over-the-top gore to get, well, under one’s skin.
Glazer blazes a unique path with Under the Skin, and creates a type of minimalist lo-fi sci-fi pic that bandies about big ideas but leaves the viewer to ponder and parse them out. Kubrickian imagery and stylistic flair meet naturalistic dialogue to create a unique movie that will sear itself into your consciousness. It’s an aptly titled film that will likely alienate many but speak strongly to those that embrace its weirdness. Count me as one of them.