Under the Skin (2014)

Posted by Joel Copling on April 21, 2014

It is very nearly difficult to approach a film such as "Under the Skin" without dipping (from my point-of-view) into either spoilerish or exaggerated territory. The former must be avoided outright so as not to give away the particulars of a dense, surprising narrative; on the other hand, there is no way to spoil an experience like the one with which co-writer/director Jonathan Glazer awards his patient audience. The latter must be avoided, because while, in this viewer's opinion, "Under the Skin" is perhaps the best, most unshakable film in quite a few years, the question becomes how I, as a writer, sell that idea without overdoing it. The first step, I suppose, is to be upfront, which I now have, and here, again: "Under the Skin" is pretty near-flawless, an examination of humanity from an outside source that treats the planet Earth as the alien thing it is to this particular outsider.

Scarlett Johansson plays the outsider in a performance of restrained, focused calm. She drives a nondescript van across the countryside--a van to which she lures a series of men from whom she asks directions to various places. She then shows interest in their business and offers to give them a ride to wherever it is located. It is then when her game is revealed: She lures them into what seems to be her apartment (It is actually a room immediately memorable for its total, complete blackness, but the victims of her game don't seem to notice for the beauty of the woman in front of them), into which they disappear forever. The vehicle for their disappearance, by the way, will be left up to you to discover; the most chilling sequence is set in the pit of this vehicle, its prey (such as one played by Paul Brannigan) merely in suspended animation and fully nude (The punchline of this particularly morbid sequence is blunt and unforgettable).

She has a helper in this quest, a motorcycle-driving "fixer" played by a completely silent, terrifically creepy Jeremy McWilliams whose presence in the opening sequence sets the rules by which he follows. She needs a job done; he does it. We first see her take the clothes from a helpless, unfortunate soul that he is murdered. Later, when she abducts a visiting, Czechan diver who attempts but fails to save the parents of a young toddler at the shore of a beach, we hear on the news that the toddler has gone missing, even as it was screaming for so much help earlier. Was it happenstance, or did this silent, calculating man have anything to do with it?

Glazer and fellow screenwriter Walter Campbell (adapting--apparently quite liberally--Michael Faber's novel) refuse to spoonfeed their audience or answer even the simplest of questions--except, perhaps, whether this outsider has lost the motivation to carry out what feels like the first part of a plan when something like compassion invades her detached worldview. Here she is, having spent the majority of the film committing one abduction after the next but unable to keep up her end of the bargain when a deformed man (played by Adam Pearson, a first-time performer who himself suffers from neurofibromatosis and brings that nugget of honesty into a surprisingly touching performance) with "beautiful hands" introduces her to the concept of actual humanity.

Does she give up the plan? It would seem so, given that the deformed man's inexorable fate is clearly not what she had in mind. She escapes and comes upon a settling fog about a mile long. What does this fog represent? It is given just as alien a bouquet by cinematographer Daniel Landin as rugged Scotland, which he depicts as an unknowable place (A climax set in a seemingly endless forest is the most overt example of this). She also rides a bus, meets another man, as manipulative as she, on the bus. He takes her home and tries to do what she has been doing (but more forcefully); she runs into the aforementioned forest, away from the humanity of which she so desperately wanted to be a part. Now all she seems to want is solitude.

Then the final minutes come, and Glazer and Campbell bluntly corrode and destabilize her exposure to this world in a hateful act from another man whose path she comes across in that forest (now employed as a forbidding place of loneliness, not merely solitude). Spoilers are difficult to avoid here, but "Under the Skin," with its intoxicating tone, monosyllabic--but never monotonous--tone, overwhelming visual and aural style that owes much to Stanley Kubrick (The opening sequence, in particular, sets the board for the film's alien quality), and penetrating, sometimes devastating theme of identity slowly stripped away (in a literal sense, too), inserts itself directly into the echelon of recent unforgettable efforts in cinema. I promised I wouldn't dip into exaggerated territory, I know, but again, it's best to be upfront when one feels this strongly about something.

Film Information

Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hadek, Roy Armstrong, Alison Chand, Ben Mills, Oscar Mills, Lee Fanning, Paul Brannigan, Marius Bincu, Matt Dymond, Stephen Horn, May Mewes, Gerry Goodfellow, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance.

Directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michael Faber.

Rated R (graphic nudity, sexual content, violence, language).

108 minutes.

Released in select cities on April 4, 2014.