Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)
I don’t really know what it’s going to take to prevent me from seeing a Scarlett Johansson movie. It would have to take an unbelievably bad story or her sudden interest in starring alongside someone like Pauly Shore where I’d just toss my hands in the air and say, “You know what? No. It’s just not worth it. I don’t care how good she is. It’s. Not. Worth. It.”
Under the Skin, a new movie from a director you’ve never heard of, is f***ing incredible. And Johansson is just as good in it. This is one in a cluster of memorable dramatic outings as of late. Just off the top, her contribution to Spike Lee’s Her via a challenging off-screen performance, the way she seduced Joseph Gordon-Levitt and lifted his directorial debut Don Jon to heights perhaps otherwise unobtainable as northern Jersey girl Barbara Sugarman. This is still without even turning attention to Natasha Romanoff in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where she has carved out a nice little niche in that ever-expanding franchise and has effectively ensured a solid fall-back plan should her other ventures prove to be fruitless.
Fortunately she has no real reason to consider The Avengers a safety net. By now it should be abundantly clear the woman can more than hold her own in a variety of role types and is destined for extraordinary success in the future if she insists on being this good.
In Jonathan Glazer’s distressing, disturbing and occasionally even disgusting Under the Skin, the role is almost exclusively a physical one and is simultaneously her most matured and affecting role to date. Known only as “The Female,” her modus operandi is seducing random, unsuspecting men she comes across, often roadside and on their own. First she strikes up a conversation and then quickly lures them back to her place. While that sounds like a good deal, it’s a process that never ends well for the men, to say the least. Her physicality certainly helps elevate the procedure to bizarre extremes.
In fairness, it’s not just Johansson’s possibly insatiable appetite for challenging roles that makes this an experience to remember. Her performance contributes mightily, but its what director Jonathan Glazer is able to do with the fabric of reality surrounding this displaced alien that sears many a strange image into the viewer’s mind, where they are likely to reside for long after. And a script from Walter Campbell could not have been more intriguing and downright strange.
While “Laura” ambles her way across the barren, windswept landscape she lives and breathes very much in a ‘real,’ physical, somewhat hostile environment. The men she approaches time and again are apparently real Scotsmen who have never acted before and remain unaware that they’re being filmed until after the scene has been shot — a tactic that adds tremendously to the realism quota. Glazer takes things one step further by presenting our world as only surface-level, a platform from which he enjoys departing frequently and sending Dorothy tumbling down the dark rabbit hole over and again.
The trance-like state we occasionally lapse into wouldn’t be quite as powerful without the unnerving soundtrack, though. An original score from Mica Levi blends high-pitched (bordering on white) noise and slow, tempered beats to create the ultimate head-trippy experience. Whenever it fades into the background, the film is crisp with ambient sound — the pitter patter of rain and the fierce raking of the Scottish winds help put our feet on the ground on occasion. All this works seamlessly to affect the mood of the piece.
Under the Skin remains a thoroughly ambiguous film, however. For some it might just remain too much so, given the considerable lack of dialogue, lethargic pacing, and a clear decision to not explain many of the major developments in any great detail. These factors will undoubtedly repel the viewer who is wishing to be spoonfed more information than Glazer was obviously willing to provide.
Though he’s sure to secure a passionate fanbase, Glazer also has the power to divide general opinion right down the middle. His style isn’t one a great many are going to associate an actress of Scarlett Johansson’s stature with. This is understandable considering the profundity of the themes that are presented, and the obvious decision the director makes to not clarify many of them. Quite frankly I left this film with a lot of doubts and concerns about what I had just witnessed. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to take away, other than the privilege we have as humans to feel emotion and to experience them changing over time.
Such a possibility does not exist for something like “Laura;” she’s a clean slate. But watching her trying to fit in to society proves to be one incredibly fascinating experiment, one that won’t be forgotten soon. In this regard, the film succeeds immensely.
Recommendation: The major selling points of Under the Skin boil down to a brilliant performance from Scarlett Johansson and an opportunity to journey deep into the human psyche. Emotionally investing, visually arresting and occasionally deeply distressing, Glazer’s second feature is a challenging experiment that got under my skin and inside my head but in the best way possible. If you’re up for a cerebral challenge, you might find yourself in the same boat.
Running Time: 108 mins.
Quoted: “Do you think I’m pretty?”
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