By: Garrett Collins
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan, and Jessica Mance
Jonathan Grazer is a very peculiar filmmaker. He, like the majority of my generation’s filmmakers, came from the world of music videos. Yet, he has a film resume that includes three films in fifteen years. There was Sexy Beast, which garnered Ben Kingsley an Oscar nomination. And then there was Birth, a film from 2004 featuring Nicole Kidman that was almost booed off the screen at Sundance. From what I hear, Under The Skin, his first feature in ten years, has been garnering similar reactions. It is a film consisting of almost zero dialogue. Yet, it is also a film in which all three major aspects of production would seem to be on the same page. Between the brilliant cinematography by Daniel Landin, Mica Levi’s melancholic score, and Glazer’s astute direction, I don’t think I would be going out on a limb to proclaim Under The Skin to be a perfect mix of David Lynch and Danny Boyle.
The film tells the story of an alien that takes shape of a woman and scours Earth in order to harvest specific resources. Glazer’s choice to get Johansson into this role is brilliant, because we have been conditioned to know what to expect with her. While you are at once seduced and entranced by her beauty (even with an almost overbearing black mop/wig), throughout the film you grow to fear her. She lures lonely males with nothing to live for in her van (think of it as Buffalo Bill in role reversal) and they are knocked out. When they awake, they find they are nude and walking in a black room. What happens next is only shown once, but it is so indescribable that it is enough to make you fear for all her victims.
Glazer reportedly used a very unique technique in filming Under The Skin, as he filmed non actors reacting to Johansson luring them into the van and even filmed her going into nightclubs using hidden cameras. It is a technique that isn’t new, but to me enhanced the viewing experience. As she is playing an alien, all reactions to her should be played as such, and the way this professional actress used this to her advantage was breathtaking.
There is one scene at a beach involving Johansson, a man and a baby that is deeply disturbing, but even if it is not abundantly clear, marks a complete turning point in the story while at the same time succeeds in building tension for the rest of the film. There is also a bizarre sub-plot involving a man on a motorcycle who follows Johansson at every turn of the story that we never fully understand. Is he her bodyguard? Harvester? Who knows. And while I know there are people who will say the film’s complete lack of dramatic substance takes away from the overall narrative of the story, I say it makes the film that much more hypnotic. I was taken in by Under The Skin’s structure, as each and every frame of film is brilliantly staged and each landscape carefully chosen. Oh, and as a guy, I also feel it is my duty to proclaim that anyone who was looking for Johansson’s first bit of full frontal nudity need look no further. You’re welcome.
Under The Skin is a compelling experiment in film. It is a movie that I know won’t (and hasn’t, judging from the audience I saw it with) resonate with the majority of film goers. But if looked at closely, Glazer’s film is a spellbinding deconstruction of female sexuality and its power to turn even the most masculine of men into putty. Sure, old sci-fi junkies will see many similarities to Species. But Under The Skin is not going to make its mark by taking you on a film going experience and throwing special effects laden deaths your way at every turn. All of its production synapse is made abundantly clear throughout the entire film, and I dare you to have a more magnetic experience at the movies this year.