Review: Under the Skin

2014/05/20 19:19:20 +00:00 | Becki Hawkes

Almost three years ago, the world-famous Scarlett Johansson donned a black wig, applied a blood red slick of lipstick, and drove a grubby white van around the equally grubby streets of the Scottish city of Glasgow, where she accosted unsuspecting men and invited them to join her. The footage from this somewhat surreal hidden-camera experiment is utilized to masterful effect in Under the Skin, the eerie, utterly unique new film from Sexy Beast director Jonathan Glazer.

A pared back adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, Under the Skin stars Johansson as a deadly, alien huntress. Disguised as a beautiful woman – in a body that she climbs into like a shell – Johansson’s extraterrestrial femme fatale entices then imprisons the strangers she encounters: a brief shot depicting pulverized blood and flesh draining away makes it clear that none of her victims come to a good end. Johansson’s alien initially views the world with a cold, bewildered detachment, intent on her solitary mission. However, as the film develops, the character begins to develop a sense of curiosity towards the humans surrounding her – and with her curiosity, comes a slow, embryonic sort of empathy.

Glazer is an accomplished cinematographer, and his evocation of grimy, gritty Glasgow is intense and visceral; seen through Johansson’s alien eyes, both the fragile beauty and the lurking horror of the world and its human inhabitants are thrown into sharp relief. The film’s soundtrack, from composer Mica Levi, heightens this impression: by turns pounding, dangerous and frenzied, and remote and utterly alien, the keening notes of the score imbue the shopping malls, motorways and bustling, drunken crowds of the city with a truly otherworldly quality.

However, the perhaps most striking aspect of Under the Skin is the way it juxtaposes traditional film-making with documentary-style hidden camera work.  The intrusion of “reality” into the narrative gives the film a particularly uncomfortable edge:  Under the Skin seems somehow tenser, more alert and awake than other films, bristling with its own dark energy. The unwary members of the public Johansson approaches – none of whom recognize the Hollywood actress – react with confusion, clearly attracted by her advances, but made nervous by the authentically alien chill she exudes. The film’s audience is placed in the exact same state of anxious uncertainty.

While Under the Skin’s use of real-life encounters is a key part of its power, other, more complex sections of Glazer’s film were necessarily completed using actors. The film’s stand out performance, aside from Johansson’s, comes from up and coming actor Adam Pearson, who plays a young man with severe facial tumors. Reduced to doing his grocery shopping at night to avoid the taunts of strangers, the character is understandably wary when Johansson’s beautiful, mysterious stranger pulls up, offers him a lift, and begins an apparent attempt to seduce him.

Pearson – who suffers from neurofibromatosis in real life – is adept at portraying the man’s disbelief and hesitancy: when his character reiterates that he “just wants to go to Tesco”, the line is almost heartbreaking in its pained, cautious dignity, tinged with an underlying fear of humiliation. The scene is surprisingly tender; one of the film’s most powerful, shockingly human moments. For the audience, knowing what lies in store for Pearson’s character, there’s also a shuddering, inevitable sense of dread.

Taken out of context, the premise of a predatory alien who hunts men in the guise of a voluptuous beauty has a schlocky, almost B-movie feel to it. However, Under the Skin is in fact science fiction at its very best.  All films about “other worlds” invite us to note the strangeness of our own planet, and all films about “other creatures” urge us to think about what makes us really human, but rarely do they do so quite as effectively as this. Glazer’s unsettling film doesn’t just get “under the skin” of its viewers: it burrows in well below the surface, nestles close to the bone, and refuses to leave.

Movie Score: 5/5