Find Repetitive Creepiness ‘Under The Skin’
Under The Skin: 3 ½ out of 5
The Woman: Do you think I’m pretty?
I do not use the term ‘avant-garde’ very often, as I think it implies some sort of esoteric idea of a film that is not for everybody. As open as I am towards films in general and as willing as I am to spread the word on certain films, regardless of the kind of arthouse theaters they may be exclusive to, I cannot help but describe Under the Skin as an avant-garde take on a schlocky alien seduction movie. It is the presentation and the basic plotting that inspires this thought, as there really is nothing more to this film, aside from its stylistic flourishes and a committed performance from Scarlett Johansson, yet I can see it being praised for those aspects, despite having a story that is fitting of a VOD release with a hokier handling of the same plot. Still, I did like what I got out of Under the Skin, as it is quite the creepy sensory experience.
Johansson stars as an alien in Scotland with no real identity other than ‘attractive young woman’. The woman drives around town in a large truck and picks up men. By picking them up, she is luring them into a trap with deadly results. This process is repeated for a majority of the movie, until a potential victim inspires an identity crisis in the woman. These are the very basic beats of the story in a film that is very minimal in the information that it wants to reveal or even has to offer. It is not a film about aliens slowly invading earth or any sort of prime directive on the part of the woman, beyond her murderous seductions. It is essentially a character study of a being that finds a character for itself along the way.
The film was adapted by director/co-writer Jonathan Glazer from a more detailed novel by Michael Faber. While scaling back on explicit information of what is going on, Glazer brings forth an experimental style of filmmaking to emphasize the mood and atmosphere of the film. The various pick-up scenes were all apparently improvised, with Johansson actually talking with random individuals, who would be clued in later to what was going on. The next phase of these seduction sequences is handled in a manner that is hypnotic to watch, given the stark nature of the setting combined with some visual tricks to make it all the more engrossing. This combined with the unnerving score by Mica Levi make Under the Skin, at its best, work as a creepy arthouse film.
Its issue comes in the form of how effective it is to see the same scenes play out over and over again. A mood is certainly established early on and there are some breakaways from these various seductions via truck, but Under the Skin spends a good majority of its runtime showing us the same sequence of events in a film that would be more suitable to a runtime shorter than 107 minutes. When the film does divert from its pattern though, it leads to some interesting sequences. One involves the woman on a beach, as she watches a stressful situation befall a family caught up in the ocean. Another is basically a series of events that all occur in the final sections of the film, which I won’t reveal, but rely on some interesting revelations and visuals.
Johansson really does shine in all of this, as I found her beguiling and sultry nature as this character to be a perfect match for the tone of the film. She is mesmerizing in this film. Even the way in which Glazer captures the Scottish setting works to Johansson’s advantage as the look of her character and the way she moves and observes what is going on is completely fitting of what is required to keep the aura of this film effective. The way she comes on strong and later finds herself at odds with the nature of what she actually is allows for a challenging performance, given the lack of many other characters, let alone much dialogue to express what is happening in clearer terms. As I have found myself much more keen on Johansson as an actress in recent years, it is great to see her really delivering such strong work in a minimalistic, yet haunting film.
Under the Skin is not all that innovative in the story it is telling, even when considering the nature of female empowerment and other such motifs, but even as it focuses on style over substance, the filmmaking is so hauntingly intriguing that those on who can stay on board, without getting tired of its repetitive nature will likely very much appreciate the other aspects offered in this film. The soundtrack and look of the Scottish landscape has a fitting alien-like quality and Johansson is doing very solid work here. This was enough to keep me positive on this unconventional piece of sexy sci-fi nuttiness.
The Woman: You don’t want to wake up, do you?