Few films since the sad departure of the late Stanley Kubrick have been able to approach the unnerving artistic depths that Jonathan Glazer reaches with his latest effort, Under the Skin. It’s a high concept genre film that invents its own language, rules, and tones as it goes along. It deals with deep, heady issues about human nature and personal relationships often without exposition or explanation, actively engaging with and sometimes provoking the audience into making their own judgment calls. Whether viewers love it or hate it, it’s certain that Glazer has made one of the few truly original science fiction dramas of the past several decades.
An alien from another world or realm (it’s never entirely clear, it could possibly even be from within and just be a monster) has taken the form of an attractive young woman (Scarlett Johansson). She patrols the dark and foggy streets and back road of Scotland with the intention of studying, interacting with, and then killing the lonely men that she meets along the way.
Blending a daring form of documentary filmmaking (some of the film’s subjects were approached by Johansson in character, unbeknownst that she was an actress and that a film was being produced) and thoughtful character study, Glazer (who previously has only made 2 features: Sexy Beast and Birth, both of which create their own dynamics and language as they go) is asking a lot of the audience without answering anything for them, and instead of analyzing the film for people who haven’t seen it, a better approach might be to simply state those questions as if the film is its own Rorschach test.
Why has this entity arrived? Does it have the capacity for a human sort of kindness and is that something that can be intrinsically learned? What effect does being around humans have on it or her? What is trying to be said about the nature of female sexuality and how it seems foreign to men? Is there something so frightening about femininity that a man might secretly think of it as deathly? What does this creature’s trip to Earth say about us as a species and how we perceive loneliness and love?
Glazer is forcing engagement upon his audience whether they like it or not. If you cannot bring yourself to openly discuss and think about what’s unfolding, then it would be best to stay as far away from this one as possible. If you feel the need to have things explained to you in any way when you go to the cinema, you will despise every second you see and probably be quite upset.
But if you go to the movies actively wanting to feel something deeper than just a surface level connection (with the title being the perfect clue as to where the film wants you to look), Glazer’s work here is positively enthralling. Its gritty aesthetic and almost jazz like visuals and tones – wildly vacillating between slick looking, but low key genre weirdness and grim documentarianism – keeps viewers unbalanced for the duration. It’s like trying to piece together a puzzle where someone keeps constantly removing pieces to add new ones in their place. By the film’s somewhat predictable conclusion (where humanity turns out to be awful despite the alien’s obvious warming towards empathy), there are a few things that can be reasoned out with a great deal of certainty, but just as many things that are designed to create a larger discussion.
It also wouldn’t have worked half as well without an actress as committed to the role and the film’s offbeat rhythms as Johansson. Her performance cunningly unfolds with the grace of a great poker player eventually fearing then everyone will find out she’s been bluffing the entire time. She’s fearless at first (and as an actress throughout the film), but slowly she begins to incorporate her own questions about the material via the character. She’s walking a fine, rarely this well explored line between sexuality and science. Often nude or provocatively dressed and sometimes cooing pleasantries at her male charges/captives, there’s a calculation that she’s sure to make the audience aware of. In some cases, making such a decision in advance would lead to a film needing a plethora of cheesy exposition. Here it’s necessary to forward the questions being unconsciously asked. Johansson also proves to be up for anything (nude sequences, fits of violence, interacting with complete strangers who have no idea who she is and what she wants), and her adherence to Glazer’s structure and modus operandi makes the film more than just an intellectual success. She brings the slow building emotion and intellect that the audience needs to sustain interest in the material.
With Under the Skin, Glazer firmly established himself as a filmmaking force that people will now drop everything to check out if they love the point where art and cinema collide. His films will never resonate with the mainstream, and I hope they never do unless he’s given the appropriate material. Under the Skin is a film that can be lived in and experienced instead of summarily dismissed. It’s a force to be reckoned with and a work that will only get better with time and age. It is destined to become a film that will inspire legions of new filmmakers in the future, and I for one am glad that films like this still exist within this blockbuster hegemony.