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Review: Under the Skin (2014)

Under the Skin (2014)

Directed by: Jonathan Glazer

Premise: A mysterious woman (Scarlett Johansson) prowls around Scotland, seducing men and luring them to their deaths.

What Works: Prior to Under the Skin, filmmaker Jonathan Glazer had only directed a couple of feature films including Sexy Beast and Birth. His previous work was thoughtful but also challenging, intense, and controversial. Under the Skin is consistent with Glazer’s work but even for him this is a challenging picture that is at times abstract with formalistic techniques, subjective imagery, and few of the cinematic features that audiences are accustomed to seeing in mainstream movies. However, that does not diminish how skilfully this film has been made. Under the Skin is excellently shot and frequently features striking and beautiful compositions. The filmmakers mix gritty organic images with plastic digital imagery and that juxtaposition serves the larger issues that this story addresses. As its title implies, Under the Skin has a lot going on underneath its surface. This is a movie about the relationships between men and women as conveyed through this story of a mysterious female, played by Scarlett Johansson, who stalks men and lures them to deaths that are best described as abstract. The casting of Johansson is a coup for the filmmakers; the actress is a skilled performer but she is also one of the reigning sex symbols of the entertainment industry at this particular time. By casting Johansson the filmmakers are able to make her celebrity baggage work for their movie. Her character is at some level a sexual predator but Under the Skin should not be misunderstood as a misogynistic film. Rather, this is a film about the ways sexuality shapes the interactions between men and women but also a woman’s sense of self and of her own femaleness. The filmmakers send Johansson’s character on a process of self-discovery that leads to some provocative ideas. Those ideas are not necessarily politically correct or humanistic but the moviemakers slowly and deliberately lay out a fantastic scenario that offers viewers a lot to think about.

What Doesn’t: Under the Skin is an unusual movie and its filmmakers do not cater to the expectations of mainstream audiences. However, the fact that Under the Skin requires a great deal of engagement and patience from the audience is not a fault. The movie features long takes and the imagery careens between gritty realism and abstract surrealism, requiring the viewer to rejigger his or her expectations from one scene to the next. The movie also defies mainstream expectations in its storytelling. The narrative isn’t presented in the way that audiences are accustomed to experiencing plot in most feature films. The movie is nearly silent for long periods of time with very little dialogue and a lot of the music is monotonous or ambient. Under the Skin is a science fiction story but it has little in common with commercial projects like Guardians of the Galaxy and much more in common with art house fare like Eraserhead and Videodrome. The movie appeals to a niche crowd, so many mainstream viewers will be baffled by it. The disparity between art and commerce aside, Under the Skin does have its flaws. Scarlett Johansson’s Scottish accent sometimes falters, although that might be intentional. At 108 minutes, Under the Skin runs a little long. Its speed is measured but slow pacing must lead to a worthwhile pay off. The conclusion of Under the Skin is abrupt and it’s questionable whether the final reveal is really worth the time it takes to get there. Over the course of the movie Johansson’s character is coming to a breakthrough about herself and her relationship to other people, especially men, but this theme could have benefitted from further development.

DVD extras: Featurettes.

Bottom Line: Under the Skin is a strange but thoughtful film. The very things that distinguish it are also likely to make it inaccessible to mainstream audiences but it will appeal to those who enjoy challenging films. This is a cerebral movie but it’s excellently made and likely to stimulate a lot of discussion among its viewers, especially in regard to gender issues.

Episode: #503 (August 10, 2014)