Film review: Under the Skin (2014)

After an unexpected yet necessary break, I am back at my blogging duties with a review I promised to deliver more than a month ago. Enjoy!

Under The Skin

Genre: Suspense / Thriller

Cast: Scarlett Johansson

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writers: Walter Campbell (screenplay), Michel Faber (novel)

The experience of watching Under The Skin is not entirely dissimilar to the feeling of arriving at a foreign country without a clue of what to expect. The only difference, albeit a significant one, is that Under The Skin deals not with a human, but with an alien experience. The creature, played by Scarlett Johansson, looks, talks and behaves like a human but, as you would expect, the motivations behind her travels are less than admirable and, more importantly, our perception is filtered through her, resulting in a cinematic journey that is as alien and strange as her unknown origin.

With Under The Skin, Jonathan Glazer gives us a film about human existence, sexual desire and self-realization as seen and felt by an alien. Scarlett Johansson is Glazer’s muse, at her most seductive and captivating yet, in a minimal performance that is, dare I say, the most significant achievement in the career of the young actress. She is vital to the effectiveness of the film. When we first see her she is a blank slate, with dark shaggy hair that contrasts her pale skin. Her mouth slightly agape and her dark eyes studious and distant. She is somewhere in Ireland, in a small community of farmers that is mostly presented as a dark, misty and somewhat oppressive environment. Though not much is said in the way of words, we can piece together that she is in some sort of excursion, driving a big truck through the town, exploring, observing and making random passes at strangers, all of whom are male. When she speaks she comes across as a confident individual who is aware of how tempting and alluring she can be without necessarily knowing why that is. Never before has the natural sex appeal of Ms. Johansson has been used to such great effect.

Before we meet her, we are also introduced to a man on a motorcycle, weaving through the hilly roads and dressed in leather from head to toe. Just moments into the film, we can piece together that he is some sort of bodyguard, or supervisor, whose only duty is to make sure Scarlett carries out her mission without incident.

Having done some reading on how the film was made, Scarlett Johansson was almost given free reign to do and say what she wanted to the strangers she would strike a conversation with. There was a camera sitting beside her, shooting as she drove around, coming across actual locals who had to sign release forms so that they could be in the film. This is why the conversations seem so awkward, and off-putting. Not only is this beautiful woman randomly driving around the country asking for directions, but her approach to strangers seems vaguely odd, as if there is no script or no clear message. As good as Scarlett Johansson’s performance is, it owes credit to Jonathan Glazer’s sublime visual language and Mika Levi’s equally powerful score. What they both create is an eerie, sometimes terrifying environment, which combines suspense with sensuality in a way I have never seen before. Without one another, working in unison, the film would have likely collapsed under the weight of a largely silent script that did little to convey a message of any significance. In fact, it is precisely the film’s fondness for silence and stillness that is likely to cause more debate and turn off more than a fair share of viewers. However tempting it would be to describe the lack of momentum as a genuine problem, Under The Skin frustrates in beautiful ways, emphasizing its interest in observation, and fascination with the world it creates around its alien specimen.

Usually when I think of great films, I often find myself thinking about how they made me feel and about certain sequences that stick in my memory. With Under the Skin, my feelings fluctuated from frustration to utter admiration. Such were my contrasting thoughts that I intentionally let this review sit waiting until I could aptly convince myself on whether what I had seen was truly exceptional, or like some say, an exercise in cinematic indulgence. While I waited, I began to realize that there were indeed a handful of moments in which the film managed to elevate my senses and capture my undivided attention, perhaps victim of a construct that cleverly alternate scenes of calm and silence, with ones of great technical virtuosity and overwhelming suspense. However exasperating the moments of stillness turned out to be, it was those moments of climax that I patiently waited to see. Framed within a relatively straightforward concept was a film that dared to be strange yet beautiful, alienating yet captivating. For Jonathan Glazer, Under the Skin is a triumph, if not entirely of the human kind.


Under the Skin

8 thoughts on “Film review: Under the Skin (2014)

  1. Great review, also loved the movie myself but like you I think there will be enough people who won’t be able to handle this film and walk away from it.

    1. There were a few people in the theater that were definitely getting restless about halfway through but I was mostly entranced. I’ts definitely not for everyone.
      Glad you also enjoyed it though. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. I have really mixed feelings about this movie. It has a stunning look and some remarkable sequences, but there are moments of frustration like you mention. I agree that Johansson does excellent work, and the story behind the production is really interesting.

    1. There’s great production value in the movie, or rather, plenty of artistry in the way things are put together and made to look, especially considering the budget wasn’t great. I hope your “mixed” feelings dissipate upon future viewings. Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Glad you also enjoyed it. The lack of dialogue will be an issue for a lot people. I think it’s a film that won’t translate well to video, so I was glad to have had the chance to watch it in the theater. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Understandable took you some time to reach a verdict, such an unusual movie! While the book is quite different with its dialogue scenes and social commentary, I think the film managed to be something completely different with its visuals, strong performance by SJ, scene with the the deformed man, and of course the soundtrack. So I’m happy I’ve experienced both!

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