Under the Skin | Director Jonathan Glazer | Score: 8.0
Atmospheric darkness is a character unto itself Jonathan Glazer’s nervy, sci-fi thriller. Figures emerge from and spill into pitch blackness as a matter of course, and the film even opens from black with only a small pinprick of light in the center of the frame. Glazer’s film plays a bit like noir, with a comely, hard-edged dame making eyes at various weak-willed men with a fearsome ulterior purpose in mind, but where this avant-garde film ends up taking them is somewhere altogether unexpected.
The dame in this case is Scarlett Johansson, who plays Laura, a mysterious, dark haired alien form, arrived at Earth (or, perhaps constructed here, it remains unclear) to skulk the streets of Edinburgh in a white van, searching for men foolish enough to think she could be sexually interested in them. She takes them to a remote brick building somewhere on the outskirts of town and leads them into one of the film’s many pitch black rooms. There she casually begins to strip, still walking away from them, and they each follow suit, stripping down and hurrying towards her before the shimmering, mirror like surface beneath their feet turns viscous liquid, sending them deep into a oily tomb.
Just why this is all necessary is never explained. Nor is Laura’s true purpose — other than to ensnare men, lead them into her lair, and deposit their bodies into the vat of liquid. The film is based on the equally baffling novel by Michael Faber, but to dwell overly on the film’s many unanswered questions is to perhaps miss the billowing trees in the beautifully dour Scottish forest.
With very little dialogue, absolutely none of which could be termed “expository,” Glazer and his skilled production team, working off a script he co-wrote with Walter Campbell, give us just enough hints of the story to follow along with reasonable clarity. Relying on a sort of narrative archetype — the humanoid who first simply apes the beings it’s trying to emulate before finally succumbing to the emotion of human empathy, and going on the lam from its merciless handlers — Glazer needs never give us full explanations for the plot, such as it is, to hang together.
And to be sure, Glazer, who earned deserved high praise for Sexy Beast back in 2000, is working from the sacred texts of the avant-garde sci-fi films of yore, calling to mind such equally stunning and perplexing films as 2001, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Liquid Sky (the latter, a bizarre tale about aliens coming to Earth and discovering the power of human sexuality, could have been a source text). The beauty in the form is the creative, visionary power of the genre: If one is to witness things that have not been invented yet, in a time that has not yet taken place, you need to be able to take a monstrous leap of imagination, which offers daring filmmakers like Glazer the opportunity to really push the limits of cinematic storytelling.
Aiding greatly his cause is lead Scarlett Johansson, who uses the film as a vehicle to show her burgeoning versatility and highlight her welcome lack of Hollywood starlet vanity you might expect from a woman so praised for her beauty. Driving at night alone in a van, she attempts to pick up men in order to trick them into the pitch black room. Reportedly, many of these scenes were unscripted, shooting with non-actors using hidden cameras (a sort of twist on the infamous drive-and-pick-up bit with Burt Reynolds and Heather Graham towards the sad end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights). In these scenes, Johansson turns from stone-faced alien to full-bodied Hollywood charm bracelet in a flash. The non-actor men, naturally, have no inkling they’re talking to a world-renowned Hollywood sex symbol, until it’s far too late for them to do anything about it.
The seduction scenes in the reflective black room are also revelatory, and not just in the sense that Johansson repeatedly strips down for them. As attractive as she is, she appears very close to attainable, almost Rubinesque, flat-footed and pale, staring at the men impassively as they slowly sink down — erections still intact — into the shimmering liquid. As much as she’s on-screen, this isn’t a glamour shoot, but having a star of her caliber and fame, tooling around Scotland, speaking off-the-cuff with wholly unsuspecting rubes is most certainly an artistic coup. As distinctive as the film’s visual poetics are, Johansson carries the film on her slender shoulders.
Just what everything means can be happily debated by starry-eyed cinemaphiles for years to come, in yet another example of a film we should all be thankful got made in the first place, entirely due to Glazer’s enormous dedication to the project: He was reportedly working on it for more than a decade. The result of his tireless efforts is a hauntingly effective vision, laced with a slender undercurrent of emotional viability that gets its hooks solidly into you. After all, just because something melts into darkness doesn’t mean you can’t still feel its presence after its gone.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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