The issue of what constitutes a horror movie is thorny one. Should one base judgement on the themes it attempts to tackles, whether or not it delves into the deeper, darker recesses of the human condition? Should it revel in violence, and blood, and in manifesting the most wicked acts of which man is capable? Is the narrative important at all, or should a horror film simple use it as a hanger on which to place the most grisly of clothes? Perhaps all of these are correct; perhaps none. Ultimately, it is a matter of personal taste and each horror fan will prioritise some elements over others. For what, then, does everyone search? The answer is, surely, experience: vicarious thrills at the expense of dim-witted, nubile teens; the discomforting familiarity and possibility of a home invasion; the sickening and graphic abuse of our fellow humans; the slow and creeping dread that the ghosts on screen just might not be a fictional as you would hope. Regardless of your particular niche, horror is a passive genre and, for many, offers the opportunity to let such things wash over us – a safe way to experience the recesses of humanity. But what if the movie itself is a challenge, if the experience it provides offers no easy answers, no closure, and no explanation? These are the questions posed by ‘Under The Skin’, the year’s most divisive movie.
It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of ‘Under The Skin’. Nominally it is the tale of an alien who, taking on the form of a beautiful woman, trawls the streets of Glasgow picking up men for sex, and then ultimately killing them. Through her efforts, she learns about the human condition, about human relationships and the fragility of the human body. She also begins to change, developing an interest in the people she is disposing of as well as in the person she is pretending to be.
Director Jonathan Glazer whose other films, Brit gangster flick ‘Sexy Beast’ and weird reincarnation tale ‘Birth’, are strange and uncomfortable in equal measure excels himself here, providing audiences with something truly idiosyncratic. Narrative is not important here, nothing is explained, and much is left to be deduced and inferred; for the most part, the film is constructed by variations on two repeating scenes – the alien’s attempts at seducing men, and what happens once she is successful. For the first of these, Glazer had Johansson actually tour the streets of Glasgow, in character, and pick up men in her van; the scenes on screen are a mixture of these real-life interactions mixed with staged ones for dramatic purposes. Given the film’s reliance on a verite style, the contrast between Johansson’s clipped English accent and the thick Glaswegian growl is persuasive and, in a testament to the skill of all involved, it is hard to distinguish between scenes that are a fiction and the ones that actually occurred.
Once the alien manages to secure a mate, via some intense in-camera conversations about whether the man concerned will be missed, she takes them back to a dilapidated flat ripped straight from the pages of Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’. Sex is implied, shown through images of discarded clothing and nudity, both male and female; the fate of the men afterwards, however, is shown through sequences that are as visually arresting as they are bewildering. Glazer opts for the metaphorical here; Johansson and her prey appear in a completely black frame before she leads them across the floor, she walking backwards, they forwards. She glides over the glossy surface; they sink placidly as they follow her, ultimately being consumed by the darkness. Like most of ‘Under The Skin’ it is both beautiful and serene whilst carrying a feeling of distinct dread, the promise of something awful tantalisingly just out of reach.
The draw for the casual audience will, of course, be the involvement of Hollywood megastar Scarlett Johansson. Now inexorably linked to the ‘Avengers’ franchise as Black Widow, Johansson gives an entirely unexpected performance here. She has very little dialogue, and delivers a performance that is almost completely physical. A perfect fit for the ambiguous tone, she is emotionally blank and atonal for most of the movie’s running time, perfectly embodying the impersonal and remote character she is given. Her performance is so subtle and nuanced, far more so than anyone could have expected, that she effortlessly conveys the dichotomy of the alien; she is human, beautifully so, and sexually alluring to the men she meets, who know full well what they expect of their encounter with her, yet alien to herself, disgusted with the suit she has to wear in order to fit in. She spends large sections of the movie nude but it is testament to her performance and to Glazer’s unflinching eye that this is not gratuitous; even in an extended shot, where his camera mimics the alien’s eye studying her own naked form, it is matter-of-fact and somehow asexual. Johansson herself, one of modern culture’s most sexualised and desired women, is deconstructed – she is beautiful in a very real-world way, at once both astonishingly attainable yet infinitely distant, the nervousness and emotion of a child in the body of one the world’s most attractive women. She acts as a mirror to the manner in which men view her; the way that their lust so sharply contrasts with her impassivity speaks to their nature as simple, physical creatures, and the way they go placidly to their deaths reflects the alien’s view of them as cattle. Johansson is already a huge international star but she deserves the acclaim this role is garnering; the absolute apex of a glittering career to date.
‘Under The Skin’ has very few special effects but the ones it does employ are seemingly done entirely in camera. Glazer paints Glasgow as his alien world, all neon lighting and pervasive shadow, entirely through craft; it is a familiar environment as wholly other and unsettling. The interiors of the apartment are devoid of anything, simple blackness, and the absence of reference points leaves the unshakable feeling of something ethereal, something alien. A tremendous closing scene when the alien misjudges her latest pick-up uses most of the conventional special effects and they are lo-fi but brilliant, creating a haunting and memorable ending to an astonishing film. Mention must also be made of the score for the film, a mixture of familiar tunes and experimental sounds, that rounds out Glazer’s vision; challenging and uncomfortable, simultaneously evocative and painful.
‘Under The Skin’ is a difficult film. In the traditional sense it is not a horror movie; in the traditional sense, in many ways, it is not a movie at all, but an event, an experience, a glimpse into another world through smoke and glass. It is also not a film for everyone; the casual fan will be confused and angered by its arthouse stylings, its lack of narrative cohesion, and its insistence on confronting the audience. Regardless, it will find a dedicated following. Glazer realistically establishes a world both strikingly alien yet immediately familiar, conjures some startling and amazing visual set-pieces, and creates a truly unique experience. ‘Under The Skin’ belongs to Scarlett Johansson though; it is true that her involvement and, in some quarters, her bare flesh that will bring far larger audiences to see it. She gives a mesmerising performance, simultaneously offering her body to the camera whilst withdrawing from it; she is staggeringly beautiful, at times aloof and poetic, and captivating throughout. If the Black Widow role established her as a fan-baiting sex symbol, her performance here junks all assumptions, and establishes her also as a true, talented, and nuanced actress. ‘Under The Skin’ is an elegiac, heart-breaking, visually sumptuous, and challenging movie. It is also the best movie, genre or otherwise, since ‘American Mary’. Between them, Glazer and Johansson have created a haunting, strange, and peculiar movie that is genuinely unlike anything else, and it is absolutely wonderful. Gloriously dense and challenging, divisive and difficult, ‘Under The Skin is absolutely essential viewing.
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