Review – Under the Skin

Jonathan Glazers most recent film – sadly only his 3rd in 14 years – is unforgiving in its ambiguity, bold in its presentation and universal in its scope even though it consistently gives the feeling of isolation. It feels almost unfair to review this film after only one viewing as this is clearly not meant to be fully understood in that time. In fact it’s probably not meant to be understood even in 3 viewings. This is the type of film that defies categorization, just like its protagonist does. It is a film I’m certain we will be discussing for decades.

The plot follows a nameless alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) as she preys on men while traveling in a van through the Scottish highlands. She lures them into a dark room where they sink into a black pool of liquid. Various motorcycle riders monitor her activity and act as cleanup men for her conquests.

This is probably the most impressive and calculative work from Johansson. Don’t let me convince you of this, just ask all the young male non-actors in this film. The men she gives rides to in the van are not actors, they talked and engaged with her as themselves and were only told they were in a film afterwards. The fact these men didn’t realize they were talking to one of the biggest working actresses should tell you something about just how convincing Johansson is.

The way Johansson engages with her prey is haunting. She seems to run through a checklist of questions and observations to make in order to lure them to her hideout. The way she jumps to each question right after the other teeters between genuine engagement and detached objection. It’s a balancing act that requires both focus and spontaneity on her part. Johansson more than meets this challenge, she makes it seem effortless.

There is a subtle arc in Johansson’s character, and it’s one that puts a unique perspective on humanity. Her character has no baseline to perceive us off of. Glazer provides a unique view on ourselves by giving us the otherworldly perspective. People trying on makeup at the mall. The constant advertisements surrounding us. The way men sneak in side glances at Johansson. Glazer doesn’t seem to judge too heavily, but he is interested by it all. He wants to understand the “why” just as much as his protagonist does. Throughout the film though the alien seems to become more in touch with what she perceives to be “what it means to be human”. Empathy starts to creep in. When she hears about the aftermath of one of her conquests on the radio, is there a tinge of guilt on her face? The way one of the motorcycle riders studies her face in one encounter suggests he suspects she is shifting towards being a human. It’s all behind her eyes, as the line between performance on her character’s part and her own feelings and want begins to be blurred.

I’m sure multiple thesis papers could be written on how the film engages with the topic of the male gaze in cinema. This is just as much a physical performance by Johansson as say Robert De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull was: So much of the character is dependent on the physique. Her body is her greatest weapon. The camera certainly ogles her, but she is not a victim of misogyny here. Glazer is using her body, but not to fill the seats with adolescent boys who wouldn’t mind meeting the fate the male characters in this film do, but as a tool for examining the relationship between the body and soul. The sequences of her leading these men to their demise is astounding to watch – all taking place on a black reflective surface. Sometimes you feel bad for these men, and you get the feeling that she might be feeling bad for them too however erection-led they are. We do eventually get a look at what happens to these men after they’ve submerged, and it raises questions about what we are. Is their anything of us beneath our skin or are they just vessels? Johansson’s character is a vessel that seeks to have a soul. Her body determines her purpose in a similar way that the media tends to see her. By becoming complicit with this male gaze, Johansson and Glazer end up becoming contrary to it, flipping it over on its head.

The cinematography by Daniel Landin in the film has a predatory nature similar to its protagonist. Almost every shot places the audience in a leering position to those on screen. The effect brings us closer into Johansson’s nameless extraterrestrial by subtly putting his in her eyes, under her skin and distancing us from everything and everyone else.

The arc of the alien is also seen visually. At various points in the film Glazer meshes Johansson’s character in with the environment, each with a closer relationship to Earth. There is one where a close-up of her face is meshed in with dozens of shots of people walking and interacting. Another sees her in fog, not dissimilar from the white room she was birthed and created in. The final one has a shot of her lying down mixed in with a shot of the trees of the forest. Just through these shots her transformation with her connection to this world is seen. At first it’s her beginning to relate to other humans in the crowd, she sees enough of herself in humanity. The fog symbolizes a sort of rebirth from her alien self to a human self. When she lies among the trees, her connection with the Earth is sealed.

The score by Mica Levi is a monumental achievement in ambience and atmosphere. It is a near constant presence throughout the film, keeping an air of almost unbearable tension over the film. It is subtle yet threatening. Composed of largely electronic sounds and screechy violins, it is horrific yet represents the discombobulation of Johansson’s character. There is something less threatening wanting to break through, but it doesn’t. For one scene it feels it might, the score joins with her character to create something resembling humanity, but it never quite reaches it.

This movie demands to be seen in the largest cinematic format available just as much as Gravity did. It is a visual and auditory achievement that recalls the work of Kubrick. Without giving anything away, I will say that the final shot of the film I believe has some profound things to say about what we are at the end of everything, and where our place in the cosmos is.

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