Silent, velvety, unknown blackness is the entree to the textural mind trip that is UNDER THE SKIN. While there is most certainly a narrative arc to the film to say that it is easily discernible is an understatement. We are led from pure abstraction into form, and the first half of the film is characterized by an enveloping soft darkness punctuated by light and shapes. It has a feeling to it – more than a “vibe” – I mean an actual texture which draws you into a world we know is not our own. Even the score, composed by Mica Levi, astoundingly his first score, has such shape and consistency that the viewer is rendered helplessly transfixed by the experience of viewing. Director Jonathan Glazer has not made a feature film since 2004’s BIRTH and he wrote the screenplay for both films. He without question has a feel of his own and can bring to life characters who seem familiar and yet cannot quite seem to find their own way with the rest of humanity. They are always just a little…off.
The nameless female played by Scarlett Johansson in UNDER THE SKIN is clearly not of our world and shows up in Scotland with a singular purpose which quickly becomes evident. She is also not alone in her mission, and the relationship with her motorcycle riding accomplice is equivocal, like the film itself. Working to accomplish her goal with singular determination, she maneuvers through and interacts with the world from behind the wheel of a van. We too are captive in the van and while she aimlessly drives, seeking her prey with great specificity, she is in control. To what end we are never wholly certain, but we are allowed glimpses into the hypnotic parallel space to which she retreats and what we see there is both horrifying and fascinating. There is precious little dialogue in UNDER THE SKIN and the spare script is just enough to help us glean what we need in order to understand her method and purpose. The visual representation of where our female resides is exquisite – it can be appreciated for both it’s deft visual effects as well as its metaphorical implications. Johansson mastered the female who, with all her beauty and sensuality, seems totally divorced from it. Her ability to attract her “prey” with her physicality is something she knows intellectually but seems unable to inherently sense. That incongruity is the crux of the film.
The latter part of the film is in stark contrast to the former and when our female chooses to leave the safe space of her van. She is not merely abandoning her ‘job,’ but stepping out of her world and into another whose color, light and laws are totally different. Glazer does a brilliant job of denoting this shift with just the lighting and art direction. As she experiences change in her environment so do we – again we feel it – and it communicates the nuances of the story better than any dialogue could have. The film is a sensory experience and it is powerfully matched by the sensory themes of the story itself – the power of people and spaces to lure us into peril, the trance of desire, and the struggle to find what makes us human. There are scenes in the film which are chilling and haunting yet not a drop of blood is spilled. It is a welcome and intelligent contrast to what we in America typically think of as scary. UNDER THE SKIN is not a tidy package and leaves ambiguities in its wake. It makes you think and question, analyze and obsess, debate and deconstruct, and it is a thrill to have the experience.
Director – Jonathan Glazer
Starring – Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, and a whole bunch of Scottish folks…
108 minutes, Rated R
Movie Review Under the Skin