Under The Skin (2014)

Under The SkinLaura (Scarlett Johansson) is on the prowl. She’s driving through the streets of Glasgow in search of single men, ostensibly asking them for directions but in reality trying to lure them back to her apartment, which sits atop a block of flats that seem to be forever shrouded in fog. It is not sex she’s after, however, but life itself. Andrew (Paul Brannigan) discovers this for himself after meeting Laura in a nightclub, as later that evening he is submerged in a strange fluid and left to dissolve among the remains of her previous victims. He has been abducted by aliens, and he will not be the last.

Shot using a combination of professional actors (most notably Scarlett Johansson) and incidental encounters with members of the public, Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a film of unexpectedly harmonious contradictions. It’s a very naturalistic piece, following Johansson around Glasgow as she asks directions from passers-by (“Do you know where Asda is?”, one man replies), and yet is the story of an extra-terrestrial being abducting vulnerable humans for unexplained reasons. It’s terrifying, yet isn’t intentionally scary. And though shot on occasion by candid camera the cinematography is never anything less than breath-taking. Scarlett Johansson convinces entirely in the leading role, and there is something so inherently alien about watching the Hollywood actress stalk through the Buchannan Street shopping centre that the illusion is somehow complete.

It starts with Johansson vocalising off-screen, warming up for what appears to be her first day on the job, in a scene that could have just as easily preceded her ‘appearance’ in Her. Following a brief introduction to another off-worlder — posing as a male motorcyclist — who seems to monitor her, the film cuts to a room awash with bright white light, as Johansson, in silhouette, strips a dead woman of her clothes. It’s a powerful opening salvo, and one that sets a high standard beneath which the film never slips. Most films can lay claim to a handful of iconic scenes or memorably images by which they can be readily identified, but Under The Skin has such a strong sense of its own identity that audiences could likely recognise it from a single frame taken from anywhere in the movie. An adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, Glazer’s film — only his third feature — is astonishingly original.

Just take the scene in which Johansson tries chocolate cake for what is presumably the very first time, only to cough it back up again and spit into the remains. It’s the sort of segment that could have featured in Borat or Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, as the hidden camera scans the room for the suspicious glances and appalled expressions of the other, oblivious patrons, and yet it’s unnerving rather than simply uncomfortable. It’s an unease that ties the whole thing together, so that the film maintains some sort of consistency even as it veers from scenes of such improvised mundaneness as someone falling in the street to the wildly surreal and fundamentally science fiction abductions themselves, in which hapless victims are digested in full view of their hastily discarded clothes. Noteworthy too are some of the edits and overlays, where Johansson’s face or body appears to be drawn first from space and then from the very earth she now inhabits.

While Glazer and Johansson continue to confound, her character moving to the highlands when she begins to sympathise with her human prey, composer Ilona Sekacz ramps up the tension with a score that keeps finding new ways to put her audience on edge. The shrill notes and pulsating tones of the soundtrack recall Hans Zimmer’s work on The Ring (only accompanied by imagery that even Samara would run from), and though loosely carnal it is distorted, contorted and perverted into something that’s more unsettling than arousing; something disorientating and otherworldly. It all comes together for perhaps the film’s most horrifying set piece, in which Johansson witnesses an accident at a nameless shingle beach somewhere in Scotland. It’s completely random, utterly ruthless and very, very creepy.

Under The Skin, then, is aptly named. Not only does it explore what it means to be human (twice in the film skin plays an important, if ambiguous role) but it worms its way so expertly and pervasively under the skin of its own audience that, not only will you be thinking about it for days to come, you’ll be physically reacting to it, too.

5-Stars

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About popcornaddiction
I am a psychology graduate, a News Writer for HeyUGuys/BestforFilm and, most importantly, a hopeless popcorn addict.

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