By the end of this review, I vow to no longer have to look up the spelling of Scarlet Johansson’s name…

This adaptation of the novel by Michel Faber ought to prove pretty polarizing to audiences. Some will love picking apart the puzzle to find what’s underneath, while others will think it too weird to spend their time on and, even worse, that there may not be anything of worth at the center of the mystery once it IS solved.

In this film, a seductress (Scarlett Johansson) travels the Scottish countryside, picking up hitchhikers and bringing them back to her place for a night they’ll never forget. The problem? Most of them are never seen or heard from again. There is certainly more to it than that, but to give any additional plot details here would absolutely be doing potential viewers a disservice (although, you’ll likely already know more than that). Also, this is a science fiction film!

Under The Skin 
Directed by
Jonathan Glazer
Cast
Scarlett Johansson, Adam Pearson, Jeremy McWilliams
Release Date
18 April 2014
Jason’s Grade: A-

For disclosure’s sake, I should mention that I have not read the source material here (do I even need to say that anymore?  I think we can all generally assume that I haven’t read the book, unless we’re talking The Outsiders), so I cannot speak to its faithfulness to Faber’s work.  I can only imagine, however, that it must be something considered by many to be unfilmable, but director Jonathan Glazer was able to craft it into something strange, beautiful, perplexing, disturbing, intriguing, creepy, and downright fascinating.

The film opens with images and sounds that will at first seem jarring while you try to figure out what they are, and this theme of metaphorical visual and audio cues carries itself throughout the film.  Particularly striking amongst these is the black void of Johansson’s “lair” that each potential victim is brought to and dispatched with.  You’re never quite sure exactly what is happening to them in the real sense (and I won’t spoil how it’s represented visually), but it’s left to you to put the pieces together.

And, that’s largely true of the entire piece.  The film never establishes a clear narrative arc with obvious rises and falls.  In fact, many may feel that they’ve watched an incomplete film.  Where our investment lies, in this case, is with the lead character’s journey of self-discovery (and discovery of how the world, in general, works).

In particular, the subject of female sexuality and its place in making the world revolve is the most at the forefront.  Johansson uses her sexuality to entrap men, but (for reasons that become clear later), she doesn’t necessarily understand why it has that effect, but just that it does.  It’s not until one of her potential victims (touchingly played by Adam Pearson) reveals himself to be someone who would not necessarily fit into the standard mold that we’ve established for “good-looking” people, that she decides to explore her sexuality even further and comes to the realization that it’s good for more than just leading men to their own doom.  It’s this same self-realization and, by proxy, no longer being on the auto-drive path that she’s been programmed to follow, however, that seems to break the “contract” this woman has with the man on the motorcycle who follows her and handles clean-up duty.  If that’s not a metaphor for the unwritten contract between the sexes for many, then I don’t know what is (it’s still highly likely that I don’t know what is).

The majority of the dialogue spoken in the film is absolutely inconsequential to the trajectory of the film, but the actors, most of whom don’t get more than about five minutes of screen time, all find a way to make an impact.  The list of featured extras is quite long as the camera often lingers on various inhabitants of the city as we see early hunts.  But, without a doubt, the show belongs to Johannson.  There aren’t many frames of the film that don’t feature her in some way or another, and she does some of her best work yet here.  Remaining largely silent throughout, she is still able to convey the emotions inherent in her journey of self-discovery.  She is the conduit for some pretty awful things here, but she doesn’t fully understand that fact and Johannson handles her confused and curious nature beautifully.

The cinematography (Daniel Landin) and editing (Paul Watts) combine to further the confounding nature of the film, but also create some absolutely striking imagery.  Particularly arresting is the way in which Johannson often enters the screen seemingly overlaid from blank space as the scenes transition in.  The first act can, on occasion, feel repetitive as it gives us various scenes of the hunt and the kill over and over, but Glazer is smart to tease out a little more with each one.  This allows the audience to gradually gain a better understanding of what is going on (while, at the same time, understanding even less).  The score can sometimes be harsh and cacophonous, but it fits in perfectly with the spiky nature of the rest of the film and really adds to the overall atmosphere.  Some of the most disturbing scenes achieve unease not by what we see, but rather by the conclusions we are left to draw on our own (in particular, a scene on a rather rough-watered beach).  Early comparisons to Kubrick are not unwarranted.

JASON’S FINAL THOUGHTS:

Yep, I’ve been pretty darn vague in my description of what’s going on here, but it makes perfect sense for this film.  It’s largely because, if it’s not too late already, I’d love for you to discover it for yourself, but also because the film itself practices in vagaries.  There are no easy answers and no absolutes – you’ll pull from it exactly what you will.  Many say that it doesn’t matter what the artist’s intentions are, just what an audience interprets the meaning to be.  Glazer has crafted a film that wisely lets you figure it out for yourself and pull your own understanding out of it.  You might be left completely bewildered, but I’d be willing to bet that you’ll still be talking about it for quite some time after it’s over.  In a film market where people are constantly complaining that the abundance of sequels and remakes means that there’s no originality left in Hollywood, here’s a chance to see a truly unique film that has that desired originality in spades.

Review by Lead Writer & Film Critic, Jason Howard