Scarlett Johansson cruises around Scotland in a van picking up men to take back to her dilapidated home. This is pretty much the plot to Under the Skin, the latest film by Sexy Beast director Jonathon Glazer. Under the Skin is not your average plot driven film; it does not hold your hand and guide you down the garden path to its conclusion. It presents you with images and expects you to do the heavy lifting, extrapolating your own meaning and theories. For me to attempt to tell you more of the plot would in part spoil it for you, especially as one of the more revelatory character moments comes at the end of the film.
Adapted from the novel of the same name by Michel Faber, Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell, have stripped away most of Faber’s novel, instead taking the starting point idea and running with it to their own vision. Gone is the food industry satire, instead replaced by something more metaphysical. Under the Skin is a film concerned with big ideas.
Under the Skin is wrongly marketed as a horror film. Though it does indeed have one particularly distressing scene and another quite disturbing scene it is not in fact a horror film. Certainly, it benefits from multiple viewings, which will help it find an audience now that it is on home release. Once you have seen it a first time and know what to expect from it, it opens up into something a lot bigger and potentially more interesting than you would first have thought. When you become less concerned about what is going to happen you can take a step back and Under The Skin becomes more of a film of why; why Glazer has chosen those shots and for that long, what is he trying to say and what is he trying to create. It is this exploration of the images and design of the film that lets you enjoy the film as a piece of cinema, and a specific creation of that medium. Glazer’s vision has created a truly original film, blending the mendacity of life with the beauty of the natural world and carefully designed and crafted science fiction scenes.
Under The Skin is a film concerned with what it is to be human. It casts an alien eye over our society and landscape, highlighting what a strange and sometimes beautiful world we live in. The film has a cold and oppressive atmosphere, bolstered by the strange, ethereal and uncomfortable score by Mica Levi, that makes the landscape of Scotland look cold, dangerous and even alien. It reflects back the oddness of society; clubs are loud disorientating places filled with squealing people, and humans come across as an odd bunch, driven by their sex drive and cable of causing great violence and fear. We look at it all with Scarlett Johansson’s characters eyes, taking it all in and trying to make sense of it as she experiences some of the best and worst of human behaviour. She does not judge or treat people differently because they are different, but humans do. One scene, in which she picks up a young man with facial deformities, particularly addresses this as she treats him exactly the same as any other young man, not seeing the deformity than human society sees, judges and makes him a pariah for. She treats him the same regardless, flirting with him and not understanding why he doesn’t have a girlfriend. Surely one of the most affecting shots in cinema this year is seeing that young man pinch the back of his hand, not believing that a woman as beautiful as Johansson could find him attractive. Johansson’s performance is expertly measured, her gaze coolly indifferent in her work but then changing to take on much more human emotions of fear, pain and even love as the film goes on.
It is easy to see that many people will dislike this film, its pace and lack of driving plot making it almost comprehensible and tedious and surely not entertaining to a lot of people, but some will find a very rich film, tackling the big questions as classic science fiction films do. Jonathon Glazer has created an original, strange and haunting film that will stay with you long after it has ended and will hopefully make you engage with its ideas.