Every so often, a movie comes along that is thoroughly unconcerned with the elements of a traditional narrative. The lines between what is literal and metaphorical bend into a seemingly impenetrable web, demanding hours of reflection before audiences can begin to understand the film they just witnessed. These films are very easy to dismiss and typically become the poster children for those who loathe “art films.” Meanwhile, the critical community gravitates to these films; sometimes, they have the experience necessary to see what others may not, while often times they simply do not want to seem milquetoast.
The last film to fit this mold was Shane Carruth’s 2013 sci-fi drama “Upstream Color,” a baffling tale of two strangers attempting to piece their lives together when entangled in a perversion of the natural order of the universe. In addition to having a confusing and bizarre premise, Carruth’s film relies entirely on the idea of presenting necessary information to understand the film without any context, forcing the viewer to pick up the pieces with the same mental anguish the protagonists endure. It is a frustrating cinematic experience, but one with a clear and ultimately beautiful purpose.
In many ways, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” fulfills the same criteria. From the opening shot, a solid 20 seconds of silent darkness after introductory credits, it is abundantly clear the film is not interested in holding the viewer’s hand. Things only get stranger as more information is displayed visually, borrowing techniques filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick used to explain paragraphs worth of story and thematic detail in mere moments.
However, “Under the Skin” is not a Bergman or a Kubrick film. It is not even Shane Carruth’s self-financed Sundance indie. Glazer, whose previous work includes exceptional films like “Sexy Beast” and “Birth,” has made a film that has one of the most hysterically ironic titles in recent memory. For a film that begs the viewer to look deeper, there is very little under the skin.
As for what is there, most of it falls apart upon reflection. Scarlett Johansson is sufficiently daring in her role as an enigmatic woman who travels the streets of Scotland in search of lonely men, which she seduces into a surrealist trap. One after another, their naked bodies are pulled into a reflective black goo, where they wait indefinitely until they are robbed of their skin.
The immediate reaction to these carefully manicured sequences, which are harshly juxtaposed to the low-budget, guerilla filmmaking that makes up the majority of the film, is that they are some kind of visual metaphor. Few clues are given as to what is driving this homicidal rampage, including the looming presence of a seemingly innocuous motorcycle thug who can only be described as the woman’s “boss.” In any other film of this sort, these effectively creepy stylistic flourishes would be an artistic representation of something else. Alas, they are not.
“Under the Skin” is austere in its simplicity, masquerading much in the way its subject does. As it becomes increasingly clear that whatever is driving the events that unfold is not traditionally human, it is surprising how a film so concerned with abstract imagery plays its story so straight. Once the third act begins to unfold, the varnish of mystery strips away and the film goes down the path most predictable. Of course, there is a long, uninterrupted attempted rape scene to accompany the film’s end “twist,” because why not, right?
There is clear evidence here that Jonathan Glazer is a talented filmmaker, Scarlett Johansson is a still relatively untapped acting force, and the potential for incredible expressionistic science fiction has yet to be depleted. Regrettably, “Under the Skin” squanders all of this.
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