April 14, 2014

Movie Review: Under the Skin

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that defies explanation. A movie that does not seem to make much narrative sense. A movie whose story dances around the edge of the frame. A movie that is light on details. A movie that is challenging, if you allow it to be. A movie that is easy to make a snap judgment against it. A movie that does not make any compromises. A movie that gets under your skin, lingers there like an itch you can't scratch. A movie that draws you in before clamping down like a vise. A movie that tempts you with danger and mystery. That is Under the Skin.

Under the Skin was directed by Jonathan Glazer, a less than prolific director with three films under his belt. His last release was 2005's Birth starring Nicole Kidman. I remember watching that movie and just hating it. I have not seen it since it's release, I wonder if I would see things differently now? No matter. The movie was scripted by Glazer and first timer Walter Campbell based on the novel by Michael Faber. The end result is an existential excursion that captivated me long after it ended, even if I am at a loss to fully explain or understand it.

The movie, using a minimal amount of dialogue, follows a mysterious woman (Scarlet Johansson) as she drives around Glasgow picking up hitchhikers and people walking along the street. She does this only after asking a series of questions and making sure they are alone and/or will not be missed. If they do not meet her criteria, she moves on. When she does pick someone up, she brings them to a seemingly abandoned house, lures them in, backing away as she begins to remove her clothing. The men do the same, once they are completely naked, they begin to sink into a black fluid, once submerged, the woman picks up her clothing and heads back out into the night.

This pattern repeats itself a number of times. It is a terrifying thing, it seems so innocuous as she asks for directions and offers a ride. What is happening in that house? What is that fluid? What happens to the men that sink into it? Do not look around expecting easy answers, don't even look for answers. This is not a movie about giving you answers, or even telling you what it is about. It is the sort of movie that wants you to ask questions, or it may be the sort of movie that just wants to be, an experience, if you will. An atmospheric, creepy, threatening, entity.

Also, who is this mysterious motorcyclist who seems to be helping our creepy lady? He shows up to wipe away any evidence of her presence. He even makes sure to fix any mistakes that she has made. Don't worry, his presence is never explained either. It is a trend this movie has, it will show you things and hope you can make sense of it.

At some point you will realize that this woman is not exactly from around here. She is an alien. She seems to be on some sort of unspoken predatory mission. It is interesting to watch her interactions with different people. As the movie progresses things happen, the woman seems to question her mission. She sees the world through alien eyes, who knows how she comprehends what she sees. Things happen later in the movie that seem to push her away from her mission, she witnesses a different side of humanity.

Under the Skin certainly does get under it. It is a movie that almost demands multiple viewings. Perhaps further viewings will peel back the layers revealing more than what is possible the first time around. One viewing is barely enough to let the textures into your mind. The music drones on, creating tension, simple camera movements create atmosphere.

What I like about this movie is how it functions as a more pure form of cinema than standard narrative filmmaking. I have seen Glazer compared to Kubrick, and there is a definite truth to that, however, I can also see a kinship to Lucio Fulci. No, it is not a perfect match, but both filmmakers eschew traditional narrative and work with a visual language as well as a written one. Not everything always seems to make sense, but it is all for a reason. Some things are used to move the plot while others are used to create atmosphere, they do not always do both and sometimes they do not seem to match, but it is all purposeful.

It is a striking film that speaks to the nature of humanity, how we treat others, how we expect to be treated, how we process things around us. No, I do not get all of it. It is a very obtuse and existential movie that I suspect can lead to rather pretentious discussion of theme and meaning, which I am not interested in. I am more interested in peeling the layers back for myself and seeing how others react to the movie it self. It is not an easy movie, nor is it an easy movie to like. It is not made for a mainstream audience. It is uncompromising, something that is not possible in mainstream filmmaking.

Under the Skin is hauntingly shot, is accompanied by a striking score, and is carried on Scarlett Johansson's acting ability. She gives a very strong performance, able to keep you invested in the journey, keep you curious about her mission, her motives, what changes her. Then the end comes, then silence.

As the movie ended something happened that I do not experience often. Sure, there were not many others there, but it still counts. Usually when a movie ends people gather their things and get up to leave, you hear the rustling of movement. Here, there was nothing, dead silence. The few of us sat there as the credits rolled on, presumably contemplating what they had seen, trying to make some sort of sense of it. Interesting, and surprisingly appropriate.

I do not expect you to see it like I did, nor do I expect you to like it. It is a rather strange experience, one I was not sure I liked. As it sat with me I realized that I really liked it, even without complete understanding, it is something that I really liked. It challenges, it exists, it is what you want of it. I enjoy the bizarre obtuseness of the experience. Now, if you want to something else that is strange and seems oddly similar to this movie, watch Night of a Thousand Cats.

Highly Recommended.

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