19th Apr2014

‘Under the Skin’ Review (2nd Opinion)

by Dan Clark

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance, Joe Szula, Lynsey Taylor Mackay | Written by Walter Campbell | Directed by Jonathan Glazer


When Jonathan Glazer last directed almost ten years ago he polarized audiences with his controversial film Birth. His latest effort will no doubt have a similar effect. Under the Skin is a Kubrikian-esque Science Fiction thriller that will fully transfix some with its eerie imagery and bore others with its cold demeanor and methodical pace. Those who argue the format of movies has become stale will find that Glazer pushes cinema forward by being willing to leave some behind.

Ambiguity may not be a strong enough word to describe the films premise. Scarlet Johansson plays an alien dressed in the skin of a woman who prowls around Edinburgh Glasgow, Scotland seducing young hitchhikers. Her purpose is unstated, but she traps these men in this static state for the benefit of her kind. With such a vague plot you can easily get lost attempting to decipher everything that is taking place. One viewing is clearly not enough to fully grasp Glazer’s thematic exploration. It does provide an intriguing viewpoint on our society as it takes place entirely through the point of view of Johansson’s character. Most of the film has a static coldness that keeps you at a distance. Slowly that distance fades as she falls further into her human experience. This progression is slight but intoxicating.

There’s a lot of irony in this role for Johannson consider her last notable performance in Her. There her performance relied solely on her voice to reflect emotion, thought, and insight. Here she is mostly a silent force of seduction. Dialog in general is limited with her few words reserved mostly for asking directions in order to strike up conversation with her unassuming prey. Many may take issue with Johannson obviously unnatural accent, although when things go quiet she surely knows how to pull you in.

Practically every frame has a sort of enigmatic feature. With limited dialog and absence of exposition nearly everything is told through doing and fascinating visuals. Daniel Landin’s cinematography is stunning especially the strong use of black and white contrasts. There are countless amounts of images that will stick with you long after the film concludes. The continuing motif of Johansson slowly walking her mesmerized victims down a darken corridor into an infinite void is particularly haunting.

This imagery is matched perfectly with a gripping score by Mica Levi. It adds a horrific element and menacing tone. At times the constant change of pitch and echoing sound bring you into an uncomfortable dreamlike state. Right when you feel the need for a reprieve the music softens to a harmonic melody. Levi’s work is not meant as just a basic enhancement to the narrative, but a subtle reflection of the character’s growth. This piece of music is unquestionable award worthy, and should be looked at as one of the best musical scores in recent memory.

Silence also becomes a powerful tool as it is deliberately placed to grab your attention—arresting your concentration with the steady use of the camera as we become a voyeur into our own world. It allows you to view the sensational explosion that would occur if you were to experience all of life for the first time in one instant. Glazer enjoys keeping his audience on edge and at a distance. This mindset does give it a standoffish feel that may be challenging to get invested in. It is apparent Glazer has little interest in explaining his methods. This is his movie and we are simply along for the ride.

Under the Skin will have some claiming it is cinematic masterpiece and have others shouting audible boos before the final credits hit. Taking chances requires you to turn some heads in one way or another. Glazer certainly accomplished that goal. One thing that is certain is that Glazer created a film unlike anything else you will watch this year—for some that may be a good thing.

****½  4.5/5

Check our review of Under the Skin from the Toronto International Film Festival right here.


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