Under the Skin (2014)

Dir. Jonathan Glazer

Under the Skin could easily fit under the title of Sexy Beast. Or, perhaps more appropriately, Birth. Or even vice versa. I find it interesting that Jonathan Glazer has, over the course of 14 or so years, made three films that could easily be mistaken as coming from three different directors - but with three titles that could be interchangeable. Okay, maybe Birth, which questions what is really under the skin of an apparently 10-year-old boy, wouldn’t fly under the title of Sexy Beast but after seeing his latest film, I wouldn’t rule anything out. (BTW, it’s The Shiksa From Another Planet FTW.)

Both playfully experimental and at times quite familiar, Under the Skin is the most exquisite collection of images and sounds Jonathan Glazer has compiled to date. And yes, this is taking fully into account how enjoyably sublime it is to watch Sexy Beast’s Sir Ben Kingsley standing in a kitchen spitting out the most creatively vulgar obscenities this side of In the Loop. Here we have Scarlett Johansson standing in her underwear seducing men into an inky black pit to be drained dry. It’s difficult to explain how much more touching it is than disturbing, but I’ll give it a shot.

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It’s one of those films that could get described as a “mood piece”. Normally when you see that term used it boils down to meaning there isn’t much dialog or plot and the music and editing is minimally invasive. But the mood struck in Under the Skin is more uneasy and dreadful than that and it has much to do with the editing and music, both of which demand reckoning from the viewer. The first sequence is a 2001-style series of shapes coming together along with the sound of language being formed. It’s the birthing moments of our main character into something resembling an English Earthling. It’s a bold beginning and what follows could reasonably be described as continuing in a low-budget, small-scale Kubrickian fashion.

Quickly, we’re on the prowl in the streets of Glasgow with Johansson behind the wheel of the UK version of a molester’s van. It’s a bit of a comical scenario. Even someone like Michael Fassbender would have trouble picking up ladies in such a vehicle. Which is why Scarlett Johansson is practically the only actress who could pull this off. And the movie has some fun early on in these predatory moments. An early exchange between Johansson (none of the characters in the film are given names) and one of her conquests cuts back and forth between her at the driver’s wheel and him in the passenger seat - cleverly timed to the arrhythmic nature of their flirting.

In fact, the dialog is a useful tool in this film. Let’s face it, Scarlett Johansson doesn’t really belong in Glasgow any more than Jayne Mansfield would. Even with darkened hair. So listening to these footballer kids speaking to her in their thick, nearly indecipherable Scottish accents only adds to the displacement that the viewer feels in these scenes and the alienation that creeps behind every movement Johansson takes.

These kinds of encounters escalate until Johansson reaches her breaking point in a seduction that is tragically uncomfortable for everyone involved. She flees from her complicit captors - or are they her underlings? Whatever these leathery men are they definitely do not want her to leave or for her actions to be revealed. What follows, as she tries to find some solace in the countryside, contains great images - perhaps the best of the film - but also begins to change the movie tonally into something that feels all too familiar. This does eventually lead to a stunning finale and therefore can be forgiven easily enough as some sort of rite of passage.

Under the Skin, taken from a novel by Michel Faber, can be read as trying to capture what it means to be human and/or, more precisely, what it feels like to not fit in - which can be an intrinsic part of being human. It’s a story that’s been told before but Jonathan Glazer tells it in an arresting way that has never quite been done before. Most times the film simply tries to make you feel as sympathetic to the main character as possible but Glazer gets you uncomfortable. He mixes images of beauty and banality and ultimately achieves in making Scotland seem as much some scary far away planet as any other. Here’s hoping he doesn’t borrow too much more from Stanley Kubrick and take another 10 years before he reminds of us his talent.