Directed by Jonathan Glazer, written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, from a novel by Michel Faber.
Imagine Scarlett Johansson dropped in the middle of busy Glasgow, Scotland. She’s known all over the world for her role in those Marvel Studios superhero movies, so she has an unlikely, de-glammed brunette coiffure to provide just a dash of anonymity. She interacts with local men. She invites them into the large white van she’s driving. The interactions are filmed with a hidden camera.
Sounds a little like Candid Camera or Just For Laughs: Gags, doesn’t it? But it isn’t—this is a new, highly original feature film, where Johansson plays a predatory alien who takes human form in order to lure men into a tar-pit trap, their body matter consumed in a terrible, effective way. It’s a hypnotic and incomparable picture. What it’s really about is anyone’s guess. I have my ideas, which I’ll get to in a bit.
But first, let me say that it’s a joy to see something that really demands you pay attention. It’s a puzzle to be solved. Director Jonathan Glazer’s two previous feature films were also puzzlers. The London- and Spain-set gangster picture Sexy Beast included dream sequences of bunny men with guns. Birth was based on the premise that a dead man might be reincarnated in the body of a boy. Glazer isn’t afraid of swinging for the ephemeral, fantastic fences.
Let me try and describe this new one.
The first thing we see is a pinpoint of light. It is actually an eye, a constructed one—Hal-9000 is not a far-off reference here. Shadows of Kubrick, but also of Soderbergh, The Coens, Shane Carruth, and perhaps most directly, Nic Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth.
The eye belongs to our protagonist: she’s free of emotion but understands consequence. She can communicate with her prey, affecting an out-of-place posh English accent amongst the working class Scots. She’s not above bashing them with a rock while ignoring the cries of an abandoned child.
But an encounter with an unusual man seems to reach her. Suddenly she’s wandering in the country, disconnected and uncertain. People show her their kindness and weakness. For the first time she experiences violence done to her. And fear. Her biker caretaker scours the country searching for her, but she’s absent.
There’s a lot of silence in this film, punctuated by self-conscious beats and atonal scronk. But this isn’t a horror film—it’s outside typical genre lines.
Johansson is beloved by the fanboys, though doesn’t get a lot of credit for her range, partly because she has a low-key, smoky style—she’s much more Bacall than Monroe. This is maybe her riskiest role since The Girl With The Pearl Earring in 2003—and the risk is far beyond the nudity the film requires. The whole movie rests on her. If she doesn’t convince, the entire thing falls apart.
I bought the performance. I was initially distracted by the fact of it being Johnasson—the trick of the movie, the hidden cameras, this variant on Borat. I gather those guys who got into the van with her signed releases afterwards so they could appear in the film— I wish I could have seen the look on their faces when they realized who was doing the luring. Something for the DVD extras, maybe. But not everyone is unknowing—there are professional actors in the mix, too.
It’s hard not to think about the logistics of such a thing, at least at the outset. But as we spend more time in the film, and our protagonist starts to understand human experience, things change. We see the cracks in the facade, a vulnerability, her inability to process what’s going on around her.
So, while I first thought it was about our relationship with celebrity, with Hollywood, that’s really just surface slickness.
It also made me think about gender politics and power dynamics. Consider the reverse situation: How many women would do such a thing, get in a car with a man, however attractive he might be? Our alien holds all the cards—almost all the men she invites into her space find themselves trapped and condemned. Interestingly, there’s only once that the alien has a substantial interaction with other women, a group of partiers who drag her to a nightclub where she finds a fresh male victim.
I figure Under The Skin is really about alienation. Pure and simple: how disconnected we can be from the world around us, how little we understand of it. It’s about being lonely. It consumes us. It undermines us, gets inside. Under the skin.
This is fascinating, challenging stuff. I recommend going with a cinepanion. However you feel about the film, it will help to talk about it when the lights come up.
You may not want to be alone.
(Opens in Halifax May 30, 2014)