Movie Review: Under The Skin
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Director: Jonathan Glazer.
In the Scottish highlands, a woman preys upon wayward men, luring them with the promise of sex in order to further her own dark goals. Therein lies the premise of Under The Skin, a bizarre and surrealist science fiction drama that winds a twisted and beautifully shot tale of personal discovery, and aesthetic contemplation. There is, of course, a lot more to it than that.
The film is not easy to discuss, partly as any real investigation of the plot (even briefly) would be rife with spoilers and partly because it is so difficult to really get down to what the film is. On the surface it’s a surrealist exploration, with much of the drama taking place in silence, Johansson alone on screen, or sharing the celluloid with one other character – usually a male. It opens with a long darkness, and for a while after I wasn’t sure what was happening at all. I went into this film blind. I didn’t know anything other than it starred Scarlett Johansson and was, ostensibly, about a woman killing men in rural Scotland. Was it a crime drama, a thriller, something else entirely?
I couldn’t have told you.
Now though, I’m just not going to because I think part of what makes Under The Skin so compelling is that very alienation the audience feels upon beginning the journey. As Johansson’s character develops before us, we see glimpses into our own humanity and mortality. As she explores what it means to be human, so do we. As she explores her own newly discovered beauty, we discover it alongside her. It’s played superbly, and the scene where the woman (Isserley in the novel, Laura in the credits but unnamed in the film itself) is a testament explores her own body and the fledging concepts of self-image, attractiveness and beauty awakening within her is a truly powerful moment.
Although at first content to harvest the men, (most of whom were not actors as such, but merely common folk filmed with hidden cameras and only later invited to have the material included in the film) taking them to one of many ‘safe houses’ around Scotland and… well… I’ll leave it vague as to what exactly happens here but needless to say they don’t make it out again… it’s upon meeting a man afflicted by neurofibromatosis, played by the genuinely afflicted Adam Pearson, cast through charity group Changing Faces, that she begins to question her role in these events.
Taking pity on the disfigured man, she begins to contemplate her own life, her appearance, and if the skin she wears is truly who she is, or if she is merely the monster within. A failed sexual encounter with a follow up mark leads to even further confusion on Isserley’s behalf.
It’s quiet, and solemn, and deeply marked with surrealist and abstract imagery. It won’t be for everyone, but if you appreciate thoughtful science fiction, and dramatic thrillers, this may be one for you.
It’s also got a surprising amount of nudity. Not only do the men appear nude, some with visible erections, but Johansson herself appears full frontal twice; including in the one long, explorative scene mentioned above. Pearson is naked for a portion of the film, traipsing nude through a Scottish field in early winter (that man is a braver soul than I). While the men are prey, and nude by coercion, Johansson’s is different and could have been unseemly in different hands; the long, lingering view of her nude body never feels exploitative though, nor gratuitous. It’s all handled very artfully and skillfully, to both Johansson and Glazer’s credit.
Under The Skin is a quiet hit. It’s not for every viewer but for those of us who enjoy the subtlety it offers, definitely worth a watch. It requires that you pay attention, that you ask questions of yourself as you watch, and again when you leave. It’s a film that invites you to draw your own conclusions, and it’s a welcome addition to the indie science fiction lot.