A visual stunner whose technical brilliance canít 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 2013movie adaptation was directed and
co-written by Englandís Jonathan Glazer, whose work only grows freakier
with each passing film; 2000ís SEXY BEAST was a pleasingly eccentric
thriller and Ď04ís 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 sheís 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 womanís 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 wonít hear of such a thing, and instigates a pursuit through
the wilderness, at the end of which we learn the true meaning of the
Where does this film go wrong? Well, Iíd 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 novelís 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
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 Burnís 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 filmís effectiveness, with a distant yet highly sexy
and charismatic air (if the production notes are to be believed, most if
not all of Johanssonís 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 Iíd judge it a bit too
much of a good thing. Watch a half hour of UNDER THE SKIN and youíll
think youíre 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,