The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Under the Skin

Reviewed by Owen Weetch.

Director Jonathan Glazer
Length 108 mins
Certificate 15 / R
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, Under the Skin, concerns a young woman dressed in old clothes who drives around Scotland in a white van. Played by Scarlett Johansson, she slows only to ask lonely young men for directions and to ascertain whether or not they’re lonely enough to warrant picking up. Those willing to spend the night with her end up spending much longer than the night in a place that’s much darker than it.

While it might appear willingly abstruse, this is about as accurate a synopsis as I can muster without betraying the film’s ambiguity and oddity. Under the Skin is an even more opaque film that Glazer’s last directorial offering, 2004’s Birth, where Nicole Kidman came to believe that a ten-year old was the reincarnation of her dead husband based on the same slips of evidence that were given to that film’s audience members. The surrealism that teased itself in the form of a rolling boulder descending upon a sunburnt Ray Winston by a swimming pool in his first film, Sexy Beast (2000), and that beckoned Luis Buñuel’s frequent collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière towards Birth as a co-writer has been let off the leash here, and it's coagulated with a vein of Cronenbergian body horror. I’ve read sources online that tell me Johansson is playing an extra-terrestrial, and yes, I guess that’s one way of looking at things. But this mesmerising film deals less with aliens than with alienation, mystically and terrifyingly eloquent as it explores the eddies and flows that move around and through solitude, company, sex and loneliness. There are troubling mysteries here, and they’re not the kind of mysteries that further viewings will solve.

So, while it’s not the most accessible thing in the world, and it’s up to you whether or not that’s important, there are nevertheless numerous clues throughout that this is a fascinating movie. Stylistically, it’s difficult to think of anything similar. The takes are stretched past the point of tedium, contributing to a kind of fraught languor, and the soundtrack’s a weird gig, as if someone’s conducted a theremin with a temperamental chainsaw. And Glazer’s visual abstractions often work to create entirely new spaces, beyond the bounds of space and time and anything other than cinematic description.

This is the second film of the year that could be described as science fiction, following Her, contingent upon the disjuncture between Johansson’s voice and physical presence (or, in that case, the entire absence of one). Here she speaks in a posh English accent, working alongside her strange costuming and at odds with her usual star person to suggest a disconcerting otherworldliness, a whisper that something’s not quite right. The voice is so obviously a sham, even if her victims don’t (or want to) realise it, but there’s nothing phoney or otherworldly about the pain etched across her face. This is a great performance from Johansson that’s full of understanding, no matter that she’s driving on the other side of the road.

Under the Skin is a very rich film, dense with meaning and sensitivity. There are images of genuine nightmare or dream here - though I’m not sure which.

This review was published on March 20, 2014.

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