Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
When Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, the immediate reaction seemed to be one of either bafflement or outright disdain. While big-ticket items like Gravity and 12 Years A Slave made headlines at the fest, Glazer's strange art picture was more or less pushed aside, deemed too self-consciously bizarre for the majority. This is curious, given the fact that film festivals are generally thought to bring out the more open-minded, but there's no denying that the overall consensus on the film, aside from a few raves from legitimate critics, was that it was the worst thing there. Over the subsequent months, the narrative surrounding Under The Skin has shifted. Though there are still plenty of polarizing reactions, it's safe to say that many now consider the film either a masterpiece or something close to a masterpiece, a notion that would have seemed inconceivable at Telluride, lest you be considered an art-house goon.
Whether Glazer's beguiling concoction is a masterpiece or not is really besides the point. Above all, it's something that's incredibly difficult to categorize. Part of the film's magic is the way it seduces the audience using the primal allure of sound and images; there's the undeniable feeling that everything is slightly off-kilter, or at the very least, submerged in a kind of fever-dream logic. The picture's disregard for standard plotting, character motivations, and expository information isn't necessarily novel; many so-called indie films these days traffic in this kind of obtuseness, but Glazer's direction feels different in that it doesn't stop there. Instead, he reaches back to the more experimental filmmaking mode of the 1970's where directors like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg, and Stanley Kubrick were at the height of their powers, in order to challenge the way we process movies to begin with.
Preconceived notions of cinema watching are challenged right from the start in a dazzling, and utterly maddening, opening that gives us no idea where we are, how we got there, or even exactly what is happening. Through a combination of dense sound design, Mica Levi's claustrophobic score, and startling images; (a black dot slowly widening, a piercing white screen featuring a fully nude Scarlett Johansson, a mysterious motorcycle rider pulling a body from a darkened area), the film takes on the insidious nature of a half-processed dream. Are we to believe that the movie's central unnamed protagonist (Johansson) is an interplanetary traveler sent to earth in order to…do what, exactly? Probe? Observe? Destroy? Even as things settles into an ominous groove with Johansson trolling the Scotland countryside in a van in order to pick up random men, the answers are never quite clear. Unlike the stylistic opening moments, this middle section, (let's call it " the preying upon male specimens section"), feels hauntingly organic. This realness is partly because of Glazer's decision to mount hidden cameras inside the van so that many of the interactions were, in fact, "real", but also due to Johansson's uncanny performance. Using understated facial gestures and a vacant gaze, she creates a fully realized character that only tangentially resembles a human being. Her stoic flatness as an actor, something that's often been criticized, is put to brilliant effect here, as is the knowing objectification of her physical beauty. In effect, Glazer locates that very specific thing regarding the leering male gaze in that Johansson's physical assists have been fetishized for years now, but then shifts the focus ever so slightly so that her physicality takes on an often disturbing nature.
Glazer has only made three feature films, beginning with 2001's British gangster flick Sexy Beast, featuring an unhinged mugging-fest from Ben Kingsley, and 2004's Birth, a hypnotic tale of grief that showcases one of Nicole Kidman's finest performances. Before that, he dabbled in TV ads and music videos, including some iconic spots for bands like Radiohead and Blur. With Under The Skin, Glazer has assembled all of his indelible skills he's amassed over the years into one extraordinary package. The film is ambiguous, unsettling, and altogether singular. It is unlike anything you'll see all year, and will likely frustrate as many as it transfixes. If one is looking for a story with identifiable characters; look elsewhere. If one hopes to hear interesting dialogue, then this isn't your bag. What little dialogue exits is often muddled or spoken in a ludicrously thick Glaswegian dialect. If one wishes to indulge in sexual imagery or violence, well, there's a bit of that here and there, but it's never delivered in a way meant to traditionally entice or titillate. Glazer seems to hold his shots for inordinate amounts of time, often with Johansson navigating a geographical space, and invites us to look deeper. Many of the images, gloriously rendered by cinematographer Daniel Landin, seem to exist as art-installation pieces on display for us to either gaze at in keen interest or turn away from in abject boredom. Under The Skin, therefore, could be a profound statement about female objectification, gender roles, and a probing indictment of misogyny, or it could simply be a sci-fi movie about an otherworldly being studying and experimenting upon a foreign species. It could, in fact, be both of these things or neither of them. That's the genius of Glazer's accomplishment. No one person will likely agree or have the same interpretation.
Under The Skin is a cinematic experience in the purest sense. There's one spellbinding sequence set on a beach that has to be one of the most chilling things in any film in recent memory, and a later scene involving a deformed man wandering through a field at dusk that lingers long in the memory. Additionally, the best special effect of the year isn't Godzilla (sorry big green lizard), but the intoxicating "black goo" that literally swallows every horny male inside it's wake. Several moments taking place inside this tub of intergalactic goo are absolutely hypnotic, including one particular shocking effect that counts as the gasp-worthy moment of the year. The film is also interesting in how it's split into two very different halves; the first being much more sinister and abstract, and the second representing a shift toward a calm kind of poeticism. As Johansson comes to terms with her "humanness", as it were, the film begins to take on a quiet sense of naturalism, including scenes involving a kind-hearted man who takes her in. Then there's that ending; a sure to be polarizing denouement that's simultaneously horrifying, tragic, moving, and ambiguous. The final shot, too, is sublime in it's fatalistic beauty, while at the same time representing what many will feel is a frustrating lack of closure. The movie's apparent impenetrability, though; it's sense of cold detachment, is what ultimately makes it powerful.
If intellectually trying to figure out what it all means is your aim, then the film rewards that kind of dissection, even if in the final analysis, it may mean very little. If basking in strange imagery, transcendent sound design, and Levi's hauntingly gorgeous score is your mode, well, then the film absolutely demands to be seen. Ultimately, it's almost as if Glazer is turning his camera back onto us. As Johansson carefully watches her prey, we too, watch her reactions, desperately attempting to understand where she's coming from. As the men gaze leeringly at her naked body, she appears to be staring right through them and back at us, challenging our own buried misogyny and glorification of physical beauty. The film might be about faulty perceptions, about how the way we interpret visual stimuli is often be misconstrued or diverted by what we deem "beautiful" or "pleasing." Either way, Glazer's brilliant film shows us things we've never seen before in a way that feels thrillingly vital and new. It is, as of this moment, the film of the year.