You’ve got to hand it to Scarlett Johansson; she’s been an unstoppable force these past couple of years. Between The Avengers, Don Jon, and Her, she has been able to skirt the line between Hollywood sex symbol and indie darling, and her turn in Under the Skin has, perhaps, strengthened her argument as both.
Not even a year ago, I was praising Ms. Johansson’s abilities in the art of seduction as the titular character in Her. You can imagine my surprise, then, when just seven months later (I originally saw this film for the first time in July) she had me pinned once more to the edge of my seat. Ms. Johansson is nothing short of sublime in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, starring as a woman that inexplicably dovetailed feelings of absolute dread and pure infatuation. After a bizarre roadside meeting with a man on a motorcycle and an abducted woman bearing her resemblance, Ms. Johansson sets of on the streets of Scotland to do the same to its male inhabitants. One by one, unwitting men line up and become prey to this succubus of sorts. At the command of sultry eyes and the hope of some R-rated fun, they follow her to an abandoned apartment where each man is submersed in a binding black liquid where the worst imaginable end is waiting.
It’s all a very nightmarish sequence of events, like a dream you wake up from that leaves you almost wanting to remember it in an uncomfortable way. In that sense, Under the Skin’s name serves two roles. Three, actually, if you count the terrible fate met by Ms. Johansson’s victims. And if it seems like I’m being irritatingly vague about the happenings in Skin, it’s because I am – this is one of those films that’s best knowing nothing about when you go into it.
One thing worth noting, however, is the role of Adam Pearson, a disfigured man picked up by the woman that sets in motion the conflict that drives the second half of the film. His role is a landmark of sorts, and one that challenges the stigma of disfigured actors in roles – something touched on in this interview with The Guardian. It’s well worth a quick read after viewing Under The Skin.
And while Mr. Pearson and Ms. Johansson steal the spotlight with limited speaking roles, it is the cinematography that truly triumphs here. Mr. Glazer uses the Scottish Highlands to a perfect advantage, incorporating the mysterious feel and misty twists and turns into the heart of his and Walter Campbell’s narrative. Each shot could stand alone as an impeccable work of art, as frames fit to be paused and marveled over for minutes at a time. There’s a constant pull of hunter and hunted, relentless seduction and merciful compassion, and the sights and sounds that accompany the story never disappoint. Few slow burn sci-fi thrillers pack this much raw power and creeping emotion. Actually, few thrillers in general do.
Upon a second viewing, the inevitable comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s brand of filmmaking are warranted with Under The Skin. It’s not an easily penetrable film, and for that reason, fans of action-based sci-fi would do well to steer clear. For those who appreciate a healthy dose of art with their cinema, throw caution to the wind and put this underrated gem at the top of your to-watch list. Full-frontal nudes from Ms. Johansson don’t hurt the film’s appeal, either.
Mr. Glazer is making a name for himself in critical circles and with just three features to his name, Under The Skin will surely gain the most attention and traction. It stands as the most intricately bound enigma I’ve seen on screen this year, and rivals notable works of just about any other. Like in Her, Ms. Johansson’s role serves as an analysis of exactly what makes one human. Unlike Her, Under The Skin is a much darker, animalistic exercise that still finds a way to be surreptitiously sexy and chilling and beautiful, which has earned it a spot as one of those marvelous oddities that’s like nothing you’ve seen before, or are likely to see again.
[4-1/2 out of 5 Stars]