Monday, December 29, 2014

Under the Skin Review: Accents & Plots Indecipherable

"Taxicab Confessions Goes to Scotland, Turns into Species by way of Upstream Color"

That was the impression that I got about 15 minutes into this movie. What's amazing is that Under the Skin is very multi-faceted, despite being rather opaque.

We open with a deeply-unnerving score - a shrill screeching noise of rapidly-played violins that raises tension effortlessly. And the first scene proceeds without words: a guy on a motorcycle stops somewhere, walks away from the camera toward a beach, then comes back with a woman slung over one shoulder. The biker puts the woman into a van, and next we see her on the floor of a creepy, 2001-style all-white room. The silent, immobile woman is played by Scarlett Johansson.

Then another Scarlett Johansson comes into the frame, standing over the one on the floor. This doppleganger removes all the clothes from the prone body before slipping them onto her own form. When the last bit of clothing is gone, we see the victim leak a single tear out of one eye.

From there, Dopple-Scarlett travels the roads of Scotland in the van. She slows down and pulls over every time she sees a man by himself. She asks for directions. She offers to give the men a lift. And, after some banter, she invites them back to her home. Although I think I know what's going on, it won't be clear to every viewer. What is clear is that the events in the film are unsettling and horrifying.

Under the Skin is definitely a throwback, a stripped-down 70s/(early)80s style sci-fi pic. This will make it difficult to enjoy for people spoiled on 21st Century movie trends, where most fare never takes its time. It's a slow film that follows our often-quiet protagonist, the camera just holding on her face as she stares through her windshield. Virtually nothing is ever explained - merely shown, while the terrifying score amps up the suspense. The scenes can play out like vignettes, with no clear passage of time.

And yet time is a big factor here. The more time we spend with Dopple-Scarlett, the more we see how good she is at mimicking flirtatious behavior - yet it's also clearer and clearer how different she is from normal people. And when she's alone or unobserved, her face always gets emotionless. Similarly, the more time we spend with her, the more we see what's wrong with the men she approaches: how they don't care about her oddities, how they're not suspicious of the situation, how they're focused on her looks above all else.

So, when some people gripe about the bare-bones (or just non-existent) story, I'm shocked that they don't realize it's a character piece. Sure, there's not a ton of clarity here, but perfect narrative clarity isn't a requirement of a character piece. It just has to do an effective job of revealing the character to the audience, and of making the viewer engaged with the role. A diner scene says a whole lot about the lead, using only visuals. And one real sign that this is a successful storytelling effort is how much the film engaged my mind.

In fact, I was inspired to think really hard as Skin went on - and not just because it lacked exposition. I was thinking about male-female relationship dynamics, thinking about the expectations that people have of potential sexual partners, thinking about how easy or hard it is to act like some-one (or some-thing) else. I was thinking about these things as the movie played, and for a long time after.

Ms. Johansson is excellent here. I think all of the cast were fine, but their roles are miniscule compared to her own. She conveys this perfect sense of having only a limited knowledge of the range of human emotions, of trying hard to put on an act. If anything, her work here makes her the perfect form of the black widow spider - if we could interpret their expressions, might we not see the same welcoming smile? And might we not see the same empty stare take over when her prey looks in another direction?

I'm not sure if the part works so well because the role is always either (a) blank or (b) flirting and just talking casually. My sister-in-law thinks that Scarlett is good in roles where she's mostly silent, and this film will certainly support her assertion. I myself haven't seen The Girl with the Pearl Earring (which is my s-i-l's Exhibit 1), so I can't judge. I've probably only seen four of her movies, and UtS is the only one of the those for which her work is praised. (Yes, I missed Her)

The visuals in this movie are off-the-charts. The final sequence looks downright majestic. The hidden cam shots of Dopple-Scarlett in the van feel right and get you invested in the scenes. And the shots of Dopple-Scarlett's house and what happens there are as breathtaking as they are terrifying.

I'm kind of pissed with myself for not seeing this in a theater - the visuals must've been jaw-dropping - but the result was that I had the benefit of subtitles. And, sweet lord, I've heard plenty of accents from that part of the world, but much of the Scottish actors' words are utterly incomprehensible. It's likely for the best: without subtitles, I would've constantly wondered if I missed actual plot points. I wouldn't have, as it turns out, but I'd've worried about it - and such distraction would've taken me out of the picture.

One other element made me very glad that I watched Under the Skin. The story changes up partway through, and the dynamics that you've seen all film long are turned on their head. Humanity is evoked from inhumanity and vice versa. So too are weakness and strength. The shift opens up the story and actually allows it to say even more than it already had about the themes I mentioned above.

This movie isn't perfect. I laughed at a late, brief motorcycle scene. What happened in the last scene actively annoyed me. More importantly, I think you, as the viewer, are intended to fill in a lot of the blanks yourself - or that the movie heavily implies the answers and asks you to add things up yourself.

And, while I can fill in most everything here, the burning question I was left with is how original Scarlett got involved in all this. Was she stashed at that beach location? Was she the previous "version" of Dopple-Scarlett?

Even I was left with that one critical question that I couldn't ignore.  And my sticking to that one question also means that I'm ignoring several larger ones, omissions that I don't think truly need clarification for the story to work. Yet that means that lots of other people - especially ones who don't try to puzzle out these kinds of stories - are likely to see this picture as full of plot holes, or as barely having a narrative at all.

And for those people who are childish and have heard certain things about the movie: yes, Scarlett is naked here. A lot. You see her bare breasts, you see her whole backside, you see her lying down and standing nude as the day she was born.

So first things first - get over it. It's just a body - a point that this male-written and -directed picture makes alarmingly well - and though she's quite pretty, she's not the perfect woman. For a second thing - the nudity is tasteful and appropriate to the picture.

And those of you who are (or think like) horny teenagers should keep in mind that the price of seeing her naked is that you'll also see so much hard Scottish c--k that you'll wonder if you mistakenly rented an "adult" movie from Europe. Seriously, you see double the full frontal male nudity than what you see on the woman's side.

As a final note, I'd like to point out one more thing about this movie: the UK has had a large number of prostitute murders, with these poor sex workers often found dead in a field, days after the fact. It's not clear how the original Scarlett wound up where she did, but I suspect that UtS might be operating in the context of these awful crimes.

There really have been a lot of them over the past decade, and it would be horrifying even if you didn't stop to consider how relatively small the populations of England and Scotland are. Right there, you're talking about people with a most unhealthy attitude towards sex imaginable. Right there, you're talking about stalking, sex abuse, and murder.

So with this pic, I immediately wondered if original Scarlett's clothes indicate that she's a prostitute. When the motorcycle guy appears with her on his shoulder, I wondered if he pulled her from the sorts of places where they find those dead sex workers. And then you come to Dopple-Scarlett, driving around looking for people in the way I'd imagine that stalkers/serial rapists/murderers do.

It's an incredible inversion, with an unknowable female on an aggressive hunt and the men in the trusting, helpless position. It's clear that both sexes are capable of evil, and also clear that predators of both genders rely on charm and falsehood to trap their prey. But you also get a sense that these guys have no chance - because the woman is so good-looking and the men are so shallow that they'd walk into a furnace with her for the chance to get some.

The most accurate comparisons to make here, to my mind, are: (a) this picture is like Species crossed with Upstream Color, so it's emotionally-mature and lacks both the sensibilities of an action film and the exposition; (b) it's like The Man Who Fell to Earth, as a horror movie; (c) it's like a highly-sexualized Blade Runner, but as a character study of Rutger Hauer's role, and directed by David Lynch.

Writer-director Jonathan Glazer's work here is stupendous. This is only the third film he's made, after Sexy Beast and Birth. And, since those two movies were made in 2000 and 2004, respectively, it's shocking to see how confidently- and competently-constructed this movie is. How many people come back from a 9 year absence with such a strong and original effort?

I don't know what will happen come Oscar time, but the score absolutely deserves the award. Mica Levi has done as incredible a job here as any composer has ever done before, and there should be some recognition of that. Under the Skin is weird as hell, in a good way, and I strongly recommend it.


  1. Great review! I'm not sure the first woman was played by Scarlett, I think it was another actress playing the dead girl. Interesting how many thoughts you had here that are not at all what happened in the book, I guess if you read it you wouldn't have these ideas but that's just show how open to interpretation they made that story in the film. It's a shame because what happens in the book is so much more thought provoking, as an adaptation the film failed completely but as a film merely inspired by the book it was good, it only focused on tiny themes from it but Scarlett and the execution made it worth seeing.

  2. Sari, thank you so much! I was sure that the first woman was Scarlett because (a) there was a closeup when that one tear rolled down, and (b) Dopple-Scarlett puts on the other woman's clothes and they fit - it's a pretty thorough theft of identity...

    Yeah, the lack of exposition or much of a story (beyond being a character study) does leave a ton of room for interpretation. Actually, I'm so grateful to you for talking about the book in the first place. I'm very interested in reading it now - at least, I'll wait until I've crossed a few more books off my reading list.

    1. Oh the book is excellent, it has such rich themes and it forces you to look at things from a very interesting perspective. It's a much, much better story than the one shown in the film

  3. Oh, cool! It sounds like a modern version of Gardner's Grendel. I'm always up for something like that...


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