UNDER THE SKIN (8/29/2013)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
My Rating: 9/10
PLOT: A beautiful, mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in Scotland and takes them to her home, where something very strange indeed happens to them…
“Under the Skin” captivated me in a way that I did not expect. It is a sci-fi mystery that stubbornly refuses to supply neat and tidy answers. However, that makes it no less spellbinding to watch. How director Jonathan Glazer accomplished this is no less mysterious to me than the origins of the movie’s main character, a solitary young woman played by Scarlett Johansson in a bravura performance that must have required a great deal of courage and trust.
After a cryptic opening sequence involving some trippy visuals accompanied by an eerie musical score, Johansson’s character (listed only as “The Female” in the credits) gets down to business. With the help of a mute motorcyclist (???), she acquires a van and trolls the streets of Scotland for young men on their own in the city. She lures them into her van with pleasant conversation and a smile, which is easy enough to do when you look like Scarlett Johansson. She then takes the men back to a deserted house where I wouldn’t DREAM of revealing what happens.
The appeal of this movie is not the story, although that is obviously a big part of it. It’s the storytelling. Director Glazer works from a script that has the bare minimum of dialogue, usually when The Female is convincing men to get in her van. Everything else depends on visuals. It’s the kind of movie my friend Marc would enjoy, as it uses the camera to tell the story much more so than the soundtrack. It shows us images and challenges the viewer to put two and two together to figure out what’s happening.
This visually-heavy strategy is a tightrope walk. One false step and, instead of a mind-bending masterpiece, you get a head-scratcher that leaves you feeling cheated. “Under the Skin” manages it. There is one specific visual sequence that sealed the deal for me, a scene that provides a more detailed explanation of what happens to the men once they’re inside The Female’s house. The real genius of the scene is that it provides information without fully answering the questions going through your head. What is that black liquid? Are the men hypnotized? Their behavior would make it seem so. What is The Female looking for, food or fuel? Exactly how big is that house?
I’m being deliberately obscure because the delight of the film comes from discovering the thread of the story and following it along with The Female. Her discoveries were just as interesting and scary to me as they were to her, because I felt really in tune with her character while I was watching the movie. The closest I can get to describing it is…a long, LONG time ago, there was a computer game called “Hacker” that I got for my Commodore 64. It came with literally no instructions beyond putting the disk in the drive and loading the game. Then your screen went blank and it just displayed: “LOGON”. And that was it. As the gamer, it was up to you to figure out what to do in order to keep playing. As you discovered more clues to the object of the game, you became more and more involved.
That’s how I felt watching “Under the Skin.” Those opening visuals start you off thinking, “What the f@#k???” Then the movie progresses, and the wheels start turning, and you realize what’s happening, and what The Female is attempting, and the discoveries she’s making about herself, and before you know it you’re as wrapped up in the story as she is.
I remember there was a lot of talk when this movie came out, but I never really hear anyone discuss it any more, outside of movie-centric blogs and Facebook pages. If I can convince just one person who hasn’t seen it that this movie is worth their time, I will be happy. “Under the Skin” deserves to be seen, discussed, and puzzled over.
P.S. A word about the nudity… “Under the Skin” is, in fact, mildly famous because, yes, Scarlett Johansson gets naked. But don’t get too excited. Her nude scenes are utterly drained of any sexuality or eroticism whatsoever, due to their context. You’ll see what I mean when you watch it.