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Director: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Plot: A woman (Johansson) wanders around the city of Glasgow, picking up men and taking her back to her apartment, where they are harvested.

Most of the people I know will hate this movie. It is almost completely devoid of exposition and requires a lot of patience to get through. It doesn’t so much tell a story, as drift through it, taking its time in the strange universe it creates.

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Seeing as the movie is in no particular mood to divulge plot details, neither shall I. Putting this film simply, it is a movie about a woman wandering Scotland and experiencing different avenues of human life. She witnesses the best and worst of humanity: love and lust, heroism and vandalism, the pitiful and the monstrous. The film doesn’t judge anything it sees, merely shows it to the audience with cold-hearted emptiness. As you watch this movie, you cannot help but admire Glazer’s bravery here. It is hard to distinguish where the target audience is coming from. This is definitely not a mainstream movie and it almost totally excludes foreigners with some incomprehensible, local Scottish accents. The realism and slow pace will dissuade most Sci-Fi viewers and those that like found footage or mockumentary style movies with hate that Under The Skin never fully tackles any of the themes it flaunts. In fact, the only attraction to the majority of cinema-goers will be Scarlett Johansson as the lead. Admittedly, I would never have watched this film if it wasn’t for her. She tones her acting style right back, yet she impresses nonetheless. Armed with an innocent beauty and a crystal clear English accent that has made her my top contender for the next on-screen Tomb Raider, Johansson is never anything less than mesmerising. You can see the challenge that attracted the Hollywood A-Lister to this cheap, Indie flick. Her character, and the entire movie, is a blank canvas and it is only because of her absolute willingness to portray the nameless figure wandering Glasgow that we connect with the anti-hero of this movie at all.

The surprise here for me was the horror. This is by no means a scary movie, yet if I was to pin a genre onto it, I would probably go with horror. Some wouldn’t put much of an argument that Johansson plays a movie monster, rather than a character, and there is definitely a creepy vibe going on throughout. The soundtrack is what really makes the atmosphere work, almost as if the music was pulled right from an Insidious sequel. Sometimes it kicks in during a total ordinary scene and suddenly we are on the edge of our seats. While Glazer’s direction and Johansson’s acting are the easiest things to compliment, the composer of the haunting backing music wins star of the show for me. Not to mention that there are a couple of scenes which will haunt your dreams for nights to come. An interesting element to this movie for me was the crescendo atmosphere to the whole thing. Each time, Johansson would bring a male back to her lair, we would see a little more of what went on. At first, she merely looks at the next target. Ten minutes in, we see her give a man a lift and engage him in conversation. He is never seen again. Later on in the movie, we see her actually take them into her house and that is when the terror kicks in. The same scene is played a handful of times, never losing its chilling effect through repetition, each time letting the reader see a little more of the nightmare hiding in that house. It is a double-edged sword: this does mean that we see more of Johansson taking her clothes off, in what could be the most drawn-out strip tease in cinematic history, yet every time we see a bit more skin from the actress, we also see more of what happens to her victims. One sequence is absolutely terrifying and almost made me stop watching. Yet that could mean missing out on the next part of the strip tease. The audience is just as captivated and doomed as the rest of the male characters that Johansson wants to ensnare, making it totally understandable how easy it is for her to carry out her malevolent duties.

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The second half of the movie picks up a little bit and almost tackles some resemblance of a plot. We never know what is going on, but we can tell that something has changed. The cracks in Scarlett Johansson’s steely composure start to show and the repetition breaks away. From there on, it is a race to the ending, as the audience lean in, wondering if any of their questions are going to be answered. The ending both does, and doesn’t, answer. We get a brief snapshot of the wider image, yet the dots are never truly connected. Maybe this is a good thing, because I left with theories rather than closure. In my head, I have a vague idea of what went on in this film, yet I am always looking back over my shoulder and thinking about Under the Skin. Rarely does a film leave this much of an impression on you, without ever shoving after-thoughts in our face. It does make this movie hard to criticise, as everything I didn’t like about this film could suggest a mere lack of understanding. There is a rape scene right at the end which seemed unnecessary and distasteful, yet maybe I just missed the message hidden in the moment. This will definitely need a more thorough dissection in the future.

Final Verdict: Under the Skin is the rare kind of film I love to pieces, but would never recommend. Its beauty and message is wrapped around layers of confusion and a lack of direction. Strange yet compelling.

Four Stars

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10 thoughts on “Under The Skin: The Review

  1. Great review of a great movie, Luke. One of my favorites from 2014, at least so far.

    SMALL SPOILER ALERT

    That rape scene, by the way, is, at least in my opinion, totally necessary. For most of the movie, Johansson’s character is playing at being human, and in so doing solidifies existential themes of what it means to be homo sapien. But until that scene she only experiments with what is good, or maybe neutral, about human kind. She needs to experience the bad, too, or the story will be unfinished.

    END SPOILER

    • I did think it was something along the lines of reverse psychology. She was sexually attacking humans, so it seemed fitting that she was killed through sexual intimidation. I’m just a little against rape as a narrative device, so it was a little jarring for me. A messy end to what was a pretty amazing film. Again, a second watch might dissuade such prejudices.

      • I’m against it, too, generally. But I think every rule has exceptions. If it makes sense within the context of the art, I think it something other than verboten. As long as it’s neither gratuitous nor glorified.

      • Thanks for the agreement. 🙂

        Incidentally, I just dropped by your site, Tom. About to dive into many of the reviews I’ve missed. Glad to get a preview of your thoughts on Under the Skin.

  2. great, thoughtful review. I have watched it several times and reviewed it for MovieRob’s genre grandeur series: it’s a maddening, bizarre, wonderful film. Excuse the lazy critique, but it gets under the skin.

  3. Excellent review Luke, and like I responded to Josh above, I think the ending scene, while as bizarre as anything that’s gone on before (maybe even more so), it is critical for us understanding what kind of people Alien would encounter throughout her journey. I wish I could say more, but I’d give spoilers away. I liked this film. It’s very different. Very very very different!

  4. I can’t give a fair review of the movie because I stopped watching it. It was just moving too slow with no hooks…other than wondering if it was ever going to go anywhere. People who love it will say those who hated it just “don’t get it” or couldn’t comprehend it. Artsy does not equal any depth of quality. It just isn’t a good story. (At least the first half of it.) I teach literature, so it isn’t that I can’t “get” or “appreciate” an art movie or one that isn’t mainstream. I didn’t care about or generate any real curiosity about anyone or anything in the story. The fact that Scarlett Johansson was going to be getting naked didn’t even keep me watching. I’m sure I could have finished it and put together something deep about the film. I can do that with a car commercial, though. Even with something deep that can be found in a film, if it is boring and poorly told, it’s still a bad movie. And this, for sure, was a bad movie.

    • I usually agree. For example, I felt this way about Only God Forgives and people claimed that ‘I didn’t get it’. However, there is something about Under the Skin that compelled me to keep watching. However, yes, I totally agree, an artsy movie doesn’t make a good movie, which some people refuse to accept.

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