UNDER THE SKIN Review

Upon walking out of Jonathan Glazer's latest film I could only wonder if I'd just seen the same film as the one so many others had seen and laid praise upon. I try not to read, listen or watch other reviews before forming my own opinion of a film, but with the overwhelmingly good word of mouth on Under the Skin it was hard to ignore while I waited for the arthouse film to make it to the small market I live in. When it finally did open at the local indie cinema I was more than excited to finally see what all the fuss was about, but as the credits abruptly (yet not soon enough) rolled I stood up and exited the theater wondering what the hell I just watched. There is a fine line in being the kind of viewer and cinema lover that appreciates all different kinds of cinema and the cinephile that has become so accustomed to the styles and functions of mainstream movies that it is all dismissed as lesser than something that is more experimental or different. Being different for the sake of being different doesn't work and if, as a viewer, you've learned the tricks of the trade in big-budget Hollywood productions then you should also be aware of the fact it takes not only risks, but successful risks to come away with something both different and thought-provoking. The first thought that came to me as I tried to digest Under the Skin though was that simply because you pace your movie with an intentionally slow stride and make it extremely vague and/or purely metaphorical doesn't necessarily mean it will be of that thought-provoking nature. I like to consider myself an able interpreter of films meanings and messages, of their significance that is many times conveyed with larger scope in order to make a bigger impression than the sentiment itself might make were it given in a straight forward fashion, but even as Under the Skin will draw multiple meanings from its many infatuated viewers I couldn't help but see it as an ambitious film lacking a compelling narrative and devoid of any interesting drama to the point I could have cared less about what it really wanted to say or comment on. I'm sure that every single frame of the film is meant to be symbolic and intended to contribute to this overall poetic social criticism that Glazer wants to discuss, but I couldn't get into it, I couldn't see the point of it and more than anything, by the end, I was just irritated by it.

Scarlett Johansson is out of this world in Under the Skin.
If you read the synopsis for this film on any website it is bound to be some version of one simple sentence: An alien in human form is on a journey through Scotland. Who is this alien? Where did it come from? What does it want? What is its reasoning for luring these unsuspecting Scottish men to her ramshackle house and then submerging them in black goo? Is she simply harvesting their organs as others have speculated or does she do this because her anonymous race has more nefarious plans? There are literally hundreds of other questions I could and kind of want to pose were I able to immediately turn around and go back through the film once more now that the shock of what the movie actually is has worn off. I would be lying if I said that if I were to watch the film again, now with more time to think about it and having a different set of expectations than before, that I may like it better than the first impression, but for the purposes of this review and given my first impression I have to stick to my guns and say that, while some people may enjoy the open-ended nature of this story, I simply need more. The lack of story, the lack of drive, tension and explanation is a direct link to the overall weakness of the film for me. I don't have to have things spelled out for me and I don't need constant dialogue that is nothing more than information being fed to the audience, but Under the Skin is more a sequence of tiny visual details rather than that of narrative building blocks. These scenes that come one after another with little to no dialogue (and the dialogue that we do hear from the Scottish natives is largely inaudible to the American ear) in the moment seem to do little to actually move the story along. We of course get the sense that Johansson's character is not of this world as she strips her lifeless doppelgänger of her clothes in the opening moments and walks out of the endless white room ready for the hunt. We see the routine of driving around Scotland, interrogating men and luring those who seem to have no family or set plans for that night into her van and back to her place, the men clearly under the impression they are going to have sex with a woman that looks like Scarlett Johansson. As the film plods along though we see Johansson's alien develop more of a sense of familiarity with our species thus leading to some unforeseen complications that reverse the domineering nature of her character, but in the end came to leave little impact on me.

The singular draw here is Johansson (unless you're a huge fan of Glazer's, which I'm not and have only seen 2004's Birth of his three features, and that was in 2004 when I was seventeen and have little memory of it), but the leading actress is as good a reason as any to check out a film these days. Johansson has become the kind of name that represents quality as much as she does diversity. She is a strong female presence in every film she is a part of and as our surrogate into this cold, dreary world that encapsulates Under the Skin she seems to almost be as lost in the film as the audience should admit to being. This comes with the fact that Johansson knows she is playing a being not accustomed to the wonders and normalities of earth and so she plays this very robotic woman with a sense of distance, a separation from all that is casual with the world as we know it and instead comes away, like the climate she has chosen to explore, very cold to what might otherwise be the alluring qualities of our culture. This is where we come face to face with the buried meanings, the kind of culture study that Glazer might very well be performing with this piece that he no doubt hopes is labeled as nothing short of art. The thing with me though is that I can't shake the feeling Glazer, who is known for his provocative imagery, is only trying to make a point about not just issues of the objectification of women and other strings that could be pulled here, but that he is actually experimenting in nothing to see what the various audiences can pull from it. He can do this because he has an outline that is Michel Faber's 2000 novel of the same name that, while I haven't read it, is said to have a satirical tone that touches on themes of big business, factory farming and environmental decay, none of which are present in Glazer's feature. What the film version of Under the Skin instead represents is a director attempting to see how far he can push the limits of being tolerable before some give up on it while others, who like to think themselves a higher academic can dig into a feature like this and find as many meanings and justifications as they like because in reality Glazer has made a film so unclear it will inevitably be seen as distinguishable among cinephiles who are grasping at something they can label as innovative and that no one can essentially argue with because of the intentional enigmatic quality.

One of Johansson's unsuspecting victims finds himself in an odd predicament.
I hate to come down so hard on a film, especially one that even if its intentions seem self-involved, has higher aspirations than simply entertaining an audience, but also intriguing and making them think. Still, I can't help but to look at Under the Skin as the kind of movie that is trying too hard to be different and ultimately comes away with that as it's main descriptor rather than the reasons for why it is actually different. In saying that, I'd like to highlight a few of the things I did enjoy about the film and found intriguing no matter how minor they came to affect the overall impression the film left with me. The first being the idea of casting Johansson in such a role because if there was one idea or consistent theme I think the actress saw in this script it was the aforementioned objectification of women (a strong theme in Don Jon as well, a film she didn't have to do but clearly felt an attraction to the main theme) and since Johansson no doubt understands how the public perceives her she was willing to let Glazer use this uber-sexualized persona to sell the idea of there being nothing more to this being, this mind and personality than the object that is her body. The female body speaks volumes in today's society, this is no secret, and the objectification of it has long been a notion central to feminist causes and ideas but by casting an international sex symbol in a role that asks Johansson to display only the power of her figure she allows the audience to see why it is just as vital we look beyond the flesh and into the aspects that provide more than simply carnal pleasures, but also the compatibility of intelligence that will inevitably lead to a more pleasurable existence with a partner. The other highlights being certain sequences where I am not afraid to admit I literally jumped in my seat or tightened my fists to the point I had to look away. These come in the form of scenes where Johansson's unsuspecting male victims are quick-sanded into the abyss of her dilapidated house and from there what happens is anyone's guess while another is a sequence on a beach that is truly terrifying and ultimately heart-breaking. The score from Mica Levi is also worthy of serious note as it is never-ending and allows this film of little spoken dialogue to be more than a series of beautiful/interesting/stark images, but something of a tone poem that not everyone will understand or like (I certainly feel in the minority on this one among film friends), but that others will see as an allusion of reality and how we or anyone might endure it. My only problem was I could hardly endure the pretentious way in which that point was made.