DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Glazer
FEATURING: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson
PLOT: An alien in the form of a beautiful woman skulks around Glasgow in a white van hunting for single men, whom she collects for some unknown but supposedly nefarious purpose. Eventually she becomes confused by her own temporary humanity, and her physical body starts to shut down.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: With an acute vision and a puzzling but highly rewarding plot, Under the Skin is easily among the best of 2014, and may well turn out to be the weirdest. The action moves slowly, but is filled with wonderfully bizarre imagery and powerful space-y scoundscapes. Its storytelling is inventive, and nothing is obvious.
COMMENTS: Under the Skin opens with abstract images of space and birth, with the sounds of a woman learning to talk played over the ambient score. An unnamed biker pulls a dead woman into a van, in which a naked Scarlett Johansson takes on her appearance, and her clothing. The next day, she begins her unexplained quest for bodies, driving around and innocently asking for directions while slyly prying into her prey’s background. If they have girlfriends or family, or are on their way to meet friends, she leaves, but if she determines them to be alone and single, she invites them back to her weird abandoned-looking house. Entranced by her beauty, they follow her blindly until they are absorbed into the floor, sinking into black goo. When she comes upon a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson), she falters in her single-minded mission, and begins to look for human experiences, though she is generally unable to understand them.
Adamantly maintaining a “show, don’t tell” attitude, Jonathan Glazer teases his audience with nibbles of information, encouraging us to assemble the puzzle pieces ourselves. This type of storytelling forces us to carefully consider every image presented, questioning characters’ unstated motives and giving a close reading to each scene. The movie is almost palpably quiet, relying little on dialogue and offering a mix of natural background noise and unearthly music, leaving a lot of room for inner thought to fill in the stillness. We must connect how the silent biker is related to Scarlett Johansson’s character, what purpose the abducted men serve, what prompts the protagonist to abandon her hunt, and why she seems to be struggling with her alien body. All of this information is made available to us, if we pay attention. Every shot is precise and deliberate, with many scenes carefully constructed through the use of hidden cameras—so many of the men interacting with Johansson are at first unaware that they are in a movie. There is an intriguing combination of gritty, rainy urban areas, dark but lush forests, and weird alien spaces, plus the juxtaposition of hidden-camera verism and sci-fi unreality. It is at once unsettling, confusing, exciting, and utterly compelling.
This is, for the most part, understated weirdness. Glazer’s non-expository, matter-of-fact style belies how inventive the film’s approach really is. He reveals an alien’s view of our world, and often makes humanity as strange to his audience as it is to his protagonist. The men’s thickly-accented, slang-ridden speech is often confusing (to this American viewer, that is), and common human rituals are made to appear odd. Why do we wear make-up? Or eat chocolate cake? Or have sex? An extended sequence shows a family spending time on a rocky beach, but the parents leave their toddler on the shore as they swim out to save their drowning dog. The protagonist watches this dramatic scene from afar, a nonpartisan observer, not so much uncaring as she is disengaged, never moved to help or hinder because their plight just isn’t related to her. Even the considerable nudity is approached with a sense of detachment, and made to be completely nonsexual despite the context. Though her origins are never actually mentioned, there is no doubt she is an alien creature, a hunter given human form but never made to understand the person she inhabits. The sick joke is that while visually she embodies the human equivalent of prey—female, beautiful, small, alone—inwardly she is a powerful predator. Under the Skin is a strange and dark thriller that manages to wryly comment on gender stereotyping and (straight) sexual relations without actually delivering any kind of message. As a film, as a story, as a work of art, it simply is.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: