If the reward for sitting through endless anodyne Hollywood train wrecks is Jonathan Glazer’s gloriously idiosyncratic Under The Skin then hand over the popcorn and bottomless brown sugar water.
Glazer has never been one to shy away from subversion. His brilliant debut Sexy Beast (2000) played with our expectations of what had become an exhausted genre – the British gangster film – by reverse casting hard man Ray Winstone as a quietly terrified retiree and Ben ‘Ghandi’ Kingsley as one of cinema’s most memorable psychopaths.
His astonishing follow-up Birth (2004), meanwhile, remains one of cinema’s most under-appreciated love stories, although it’s as far removed from the Nicholas Sparks school of romance as you can get.
This long-awaited third feature once again finds Glazer ripping up the rulebook by casting Scarlett Johannson as an alien being who adopts the guise of a beautiful English woman to stalk and harvest unwitting men on the streets of Scotland. On the face of it, the casting of one of the sexiest women on the planet to play such a part makes perfect sense. However, Species (1995) this ain’t as Glazer’s deeply disquieting film means the sight of a semi-clad Johannson ends up being both creepy and (ahem) alienating.
This undermining of Johannson’s natural screen allure has also been explored very recently in Spike Jonze’s Her (in which the actress played an operating system) and the two films share similar themes of loneliness and what it means to be human.
When we first observe the alien she is a blank slate, having just taken the body of the dead woman as if newly born into the world. She applies makeup after noticing how cosmetics are used to enhance appearance and gets behind the wheel of an innocuous white van to snare men into a fate that’s as startling as it is unnerving.
Once these men fall under her spell, they willingly allow themselves to be consumed by a pool of black viscous fluid, the purpose of which becomes clear during a moment of hypnotic horror when the alien’s latest victim watches as another man is literally sucked dry. It’s as close to a surreal nightmare as one would ever wish to see.
As she goes about her business – all the while being closely monitored by another alien who has inhabited the body of a male motorcyclist – we begin to observe increasingly human characteristics in her eyes. She may wear the face of a charming and alluring woman who’s interested in the conversation of her prey, but the windows of the soul come to tell a different story as we register guilt, confusion and repulsion breaking through the veneer.
Glazer placed secret cameras inside the van to film Johannson driving around for real, picking up unsuspecting passers-by and engaging them in conversation to see what would happen. In interviews he’s alluded to great footage that had to be left out because the person concerned didn’t want to sign a release form. It’s a tantalising thought to wonder what other directions the film could have taken had this footage been available.
Just as some parts inevitably have a rough and ready feel to them, other sections are stunningly realised, in particular a devastating scene set on a beach involving a surfer, a couple and their baby. The moment shortly afterwards when the motorcyclist returns to the beach to retrieve an object is one of the most starkly chilling sequences this reviewer can recall.
Glazer’s eerie visuals are lent even greater impact by British singer/songwriter Mica Levi’s queasy and discordant score that envelops you in the same way as the mysterious black liquid.
I’ve never been one for star ratings, but it strikes me that anyone giving Under The Skin a fence-sitting three-out-of-five hasn’t properly watched what is one of the most uncompromising, mysterious and polarising films in recent years. You’ll either love or hate it. Me? I thought it was astonishing.
You’re damn right it’s astonishing! One of the best 2014 has to offer, thus far. Excellent post :).
Appreciate that Joseph. I noticed it on your top five list.
Excellent work mate. This certainly seems to have that must-see allure attached to it. I’m very intrigued. Think the blu-ray’s out in a week or two – can’t wait!
It’s a unique film. Would be fascinated to read your thoughts. It’s a divisive film that’s for sure!
Fantastic all around. Loved your review and couldn’t agree with you more.
Thank you as always Cindy for the kind words 🙂
Great review, I need to watch this. 🙂
You sure do! Thanks 🙂
Cheers to this review Mark. I found Under the Skin extreeeemely obtuse, but in the same way, fascinating. I was completely spellbound by Johansson in this. The line she must tread between looking confused and affecting an alien personality that’s distinctly NOT human just. . .wow. I can’t put that kind of challenge into words.
Then on a visual level this movie blew my mind. The seduction sequences were so damn cool. And that beach scene with the baby was probably the scene that’s left me the coldest I’ve ever felt. This may include The Passion of the Christ, even. I couldn’t. . . believe. . .that sequence.
It’s a *very* disturbing sequence isn’t it? It’s still stayed with me. Thanks a bunch Tom. I’ll be honest, I think it makes perfect sense to me; it has a solid narrative and the final act as the action moves to the remote countryside ends up being the ideal parallel to what we’ve seen before; the hunter becoming the hunted.
Great review. I was eager to see this when it came out, then forgot about it, now you’ve reminded me,
Yeah, it’s going to be one of my favourites of the year, of that there is no doubt.
Also loved this movie. One of those movies that manages to hypnotize you and won’t let go (just like what happens with the men in this movie). I didn’t know secret cameras were used, so that explains the documentary feel of parts of it.
I heard an interview with Glazer who spoke about the camerawork. Hypnotises is the right word. Man, it’s still stuck in my head.
Great review! I cannot wait to see this flick . . .
I hope I like it as much as you.
I hope so too! Cheers buddy.
I just read another review of this and my reaction is to this is I’m very intrigued. I have no clue if I’d love or hate it but I can appreciate a filmmaker’s bold vision and trying to do something that’s not run-of-the-mill. I LOVE Scarlett’s work in ‘Her’, seems that she is more taciturn in this one though.
Do try to see it Ruth. It’s unlike anything else you’ll see all year and for that it should be cherished.
I love love love this one too and i can not believe i haven’t seen any of Glazer’s previous work before (need to remedy that soon!).
Yes you do! Start with Sexy Beast; what a film.
Awesome review mate. I’m itching to see this just so I can have an opinion on it. So many people have either loved it or hated it as you said, so I really want to see for myself.
Ah, cheers Chris. I’ve just come back from a week’s holiday so was planning on getting on to that Blogathon at long last if you’re still up for it?
Great review mate. I thought this was excellent – original, weird and edgy but I found it easy overall to go with the atmosphere and the story. Haven’t seen anything else quite like it.
Appreciate that Stu. It’s still stuck in my head even now. Weird and edgy it most certainly is.
Lovely review! I really admire what under the skin did and everything, I really like a lot of it, but I didn’t really have much of a connection with it (apart from that awful baby scene). I do tend to appreciate it more than I did during my viewing. Without being stuck in the middle of struggling to maintain attentiveness, I can better respect the themes and arc that Johansson’s character takes, leading to her tragic conclusion in the stunning final scene. I’d give it a solid B- though.
Ah, much appreciated. That’s a pretty fair assessment. This is one of those films that absolutely isn’t for everyone. Glad it got a reaction though.
Really not a big fan of ScarJo but really intrigued by all the praise this has received. Plus Sexy Beast is a damn fine movie 🙂
It sure is! Make sure to watch this mate; it’s awesome.