The film revolves around an alien visitor played by Scarlett Johansson who travels around Scotland seducing vulnerable men in order to harvest their bodies for reasons that are never made entirely clear. She is periodically pursued and seemingly aided by a man riding a Ducati for reasons that are never made entirely clear.
If the above synopsis seems a little vague then that is because plot - and indeed any sense of cinematic narrative - are not priorities for this simultaneously intriguing and infuriating movie. Nothing is sign-posted or spoon-fed in Under the Skin but instead of the viewer becoming irreparably lost, there is much intellectual nourishment to be found in the satisfying business of unraveling the events on screen. As a natural consequence, vast swathes of the film are open to personal interpretation. Decoding the film proves a rewarding experience as it never slips too far into pretense as to be impenetrable.
The presence of A-list star Johansson (and of course her on-screen nudity) may well be the starting point for many potential viewers. As a result, the film may leave a few befuddled casualties in its non-mainstream wake. However, for once the casting hype is genuinely warranted and it is indeed a fascinating piece of work from the actress.
Glazer is no stranger to eliciting expectation busting performances from his cast. This is after all the man who gave us Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in Sexy Beast, in which the director transformed the man who won an Oscar for his portrayal of peace icon Gandhi into a detestable C-bomb dropping psychopath, garnering him another academy nomination into the bargain.
It’s not just the casting of Johansson that is of interest in Under the Skin. The commitment and attention to detail is commendable as Glazer casts Neurofibromatosis sufferer Adam Pearson rather than opt for special effects, and champion road racer Jeremy McWilliams as the sinister biker. Both bring a palpable realism to their respective roles with Pearson acting as script advisor for his scenes, and McWilliams hurtling down rain-soaked Scottish back roads at breakneck speeds.
Let us get the nudity out of the way, shall we? Yes, Scarlett Johansson bares all but it’s totally in context and in fact solidifies one of the many gender-based subtexts that bristle under the surface of the film. It is also interesting in as much as that it is a relatively brave move from the actress. There is no airbrushing or use of disingenuous camera angles here, and it does stand up as a refreshing and honest depiction of the female body - something mainstream Hollywood lags woefully behind in.
It is in fact the treatment of male nudity that provides the visceral shock value in the film and literally does stand up as the clearest clue that the main theme Glazer is addressing in Under the Skin is one of how men and women perceive each other.
Another pointer to how exact Glazer’s vision was in making the film can be found in the scenes where Johansson is combing the Scottish underbelly for prospective victims. It is imperative she chooses her victims wisely to preserve her anonymity and as such single, lonely men who will be less obviously missed are her priority. Most of the scenes where she is grilling the men through flirtatious means were shot unscripted and on the fly with hidden cameras. The unsuspecting victims being randomly chatted up by a Hollywood film star in a white van. The men were subsequently advised, and almost certainly warned, by Glazer of the possible lengths they would have to go to should they agree to appear in the movie.
This kind of authentic approach is very important to the films dynamic as Glazer attempts to weave the mundane seamlessly with the insane. The picture just simply wouldn't work if either of the science fiction or kitchen sink realism elements dominated - instead he strikes a delicate balance that imbibes the film with a disturbing sense of dread and foreboding.
A singular vision such as Under the Skin can stand or fall on the strength of its cinematography and Daniel Landin’s contribution on this front cannot be underestimated. Clinical and harshly minimalistic at times and expansively jaw-dropping at others, the movie never feels claustrophobic or one-note. Surrealism constantly duels with naturalism and the result never looks anything but gorgeous as Landin transitions between beautiful Scottish landscapes and willfully abstract effects sequences with ease.
The standard of the effects work courtesy of VFX house “One of Us” is incredibly high. Starting with a blank canvass and following the process closely through to completion, the team bring a vision to the table that both shocks and mesmerizes. The team used a mixture of practical and digital to create a simple yet beautifully horrific visualization that stays with the viewer for some time. The fact hat the effects never threaten to drown the overall aesthetic of the experience, and instead compliment the overall tone shows great judgement.
The undoubtedly lush visuals are accompanied by a superb soundtrack with composer Mica Levi at the helm providing a suitably subtle and yet iconic theme that complements the films many standout scenes perfectly. A lot of artistry has gone into blending the visuals and music in the creation of the arresting and disturbing atmosphere of Under the Skin. This combined with an obsessive attention to detail and excessively long development time has led to inevitable comparisons to the work of Stanley Kubrick.
There is no doubting Kubrick’s influence on Glazer - he directed the music video for Blur’s "The Universal" and the opening scene of his latest film alone could lead you to expect a “Kubrickian” homage. It is however far more than that. In terms of comparison I thought it shared far more common ground with Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day and Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow than any of the great mans work.
Under the Skin is a unique piece of single-minded filmmaking and as such is not for everybody. To some it will be seen as nothing more than a pretentious vanity project. However, horror fans seeking a high-grade cerebral fix will find a great deal to love in this challenging piece of cinema. Glazer's film is destined to be one of the most talked about projects of the year and I for one would be very surprised if it doesn’t become worshipped as a cult classic sooner rather than later.
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