Under the Skin (2013)

Review #1,048

Director:  Jonathan Glazer
Cast:  Scarlett JohanssonJeremy McWilliamsLynsey Taylor Mackay
Plot:  A mysterious seductress preys upon the population of Scotland.

Genre:  Drama / Sci-Fi / Horror
Awards:  Nom. for Golden Lion (Venice).
Runtime:  108min
Rating:  R21 for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.

I came out of Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi horror experimental arthouse picture feeling frustrated, but also haunted.  It is a film that will, to loosely borrow the film’s title, get under your skin.  Starring Scarlett Johansson as a mysterious thing in a woman’s body who seduces men to their doom, Under the Skin works as a sci-fi allegory on human existence, the need to seek companionship and the desire for lust. 

Johansson’s performance is icy cold, almost expressionless like a female cyborg, which somehow works in this dark work of art by a filmmaker who reportedly took ten years to envision (or revise) his very loose adaptation of Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name.

Faber's novel reveals much more of the universe of its story than Glazer's film, but that doesn't mean the latter is incomplete.  The film is rather a slice of existence of Johansson's character (let's call 'her' A) who finds herself in a scenic environment populated by honest, hardworking men and partying women. 

The setting is Scotland and conversations are heavily accented.  Stripping the film to its bare bones, Under the Skin is compellingly beautiful with vast landscape shots, many of which are shot just after it had rained.  Interior scenes, however, can be dimly-lit, such as in the van that A uses to seduce men.  Thus, I must say it is tonally a very interesting work, matched consistently by its strange but bold sound design.

Using a myriad of raw, jarring sounds that give the film its unsettling atmosphere, Under the Skin feels akin to having a giant insect crawl over you.  It is the sound of dreadful consciousness.  There is little dialogue, and the film is sparse in plot, so if you are looking for a narrative to hook you, go look for another film. 

Glazer's work is frustrating in this regard, not because it doesn't provide answers (it shouldn't), but that its experimental, directionless nature can leave one feeling momentarily empty.  Don't get me wrong – this is a film that you won't forget easily, but the experience of seeing it merits more engagement. 

For those daring enough to try, Under the Skin will reward you with images and thoughts picturesque, stark, and grotesque.  For others, it pays not to be curious, yes, even just to see Johansson completely nude.

Verdict:  A sci-fi horror experimental arthouse picture that is both compelling and frustrating, often at the same time.


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