Under the Skin

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Release: Friday, April 4, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

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.” Believe it or not, my strong endorsement isn’t due to the nude scenes found in her latest movie, either.

. . . . . . . . . . okay, so maybe it is. Just a little. I’d be lying if I didn’t advertise that part as being a factor in my own enjoyment. Then again, even though I’ve always been partial to the blonde bombshell, I’m not perfectly versed in her filmography, but what’s passed by my eyes has been enough to affirm the actress’s star is ever-brightening, now bordering on blinding after this unique performance as an alien disguised in human form traveling through Scotland.

Johansson’s alien (she calls herself “Laura”) is one in a cluster of memorable dramatic outings as of late — others being her contribution to Spike Lee’s Her via a challenging off-screen performance, and she lifted Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 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 watchable.

There’s an inescapable irony about the way Johansson flourishes under the direction of one Jonathan Glazer. A criticism of the native New Yorker cites a lack of dramatic expressiveness; that she relies on mere seductive power rather than an ability to emote and interpret her character(s). In Under the Skin, the role is almost exclusively a physical one and is simultaneously her most matured and affecting role to date. “Laura”‘s 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.

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4-5Recommendation: 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.

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins.

Quoted: “Do you think I’m pretty?”

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.imdb.com 

25 thoughts on “Under the Skin

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  3. Great review! I’m a big fan of the book and I’m saddened they didn’t follow it closely – it’s extremely thought provoking. However this looks like ‘inspired by’ picture that mostly relies on music, images and atmosphere. I hope I’ll still like it, as I’m really looking forward to it. And yes, Scarlett has been doing amazing things lately!

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    • Hey thanks Sati! Sorry I’m so late getting back to you here. I totally overlooked the comment. 😦

      I think the combination of Johansson’s performance and the weird vibes put out by this alien character of hers should be more than enough to have you gripped throughout this pretty brief run-time. Under the Skin is quite the unique film but it has many, many merits. Scarlett Johannson is definitely one of the bigger ones for sure

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  4. Great review Tom. I can’t seem to get my hands on this one at all. I kept missing it at the cinema but it sounds great. I’m also intrigued as to how they utilise Glasgow locations.

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    • Ah yes, this is true! Might you recognize a few then hopefully? I have to say the film uses the land in a very interesting way. Less of a tourism kind of way for sure and much more natural. God, the more and more I let my thoughts settle about what I saw here the more I loved what I saw. It’s a crazy experience

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      • I probably will notice a few locations. I know a few people who got extra roles on the film too. Who knows? I might even turn up. Apparently, they shot the locals secretly before telling them they were on film 😉

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      • Wow, no kidding man? you knew people that got in? that’s just excellent! Yeah, I read about that a little bit, and think it immensely helped add a layer of realism to the proceedings. the little reality that was there. Loved this one man. Can’t wait to see what you think1

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  5. I know, I know, I love her too! She did boost all movies and she does boost my life by just being alive. I really want to watch this but it isn’t playing anywhere close by as of yet unfortunately! Dude, we all knew the nude scenes are what made this a must see for you! And yet I am not going to deny that it is the same reason I will be watching this soon enough!

    P.S. CHECK YOUR EMAIL!

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    • Hahah yeah, it was pretty obvious I guess. Can’t hide that. And no shame in it, neither. Good to see you are similarly motivated, and rest easy in knowing the film won’t let you down. But as far as a really compelling and unique viewing experience, Under the Skin does even better. This is one unforgettable little number.

      About to check it now. Totally meant to earlier. S – – p – – a – -c – – e – – d

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  6. Thanks for the link to my Her review! I loved her in that. Excellent film. : )
    I’m soooo jealous that you saw this movie! I’m desperate to see this but it’s not been shown anywhere near me. It looks very ‘me’ (and my hubby – we searched everywhere for a showing we could go to). Glazer is responsible for some music videos I love (UNKLE’s Rabbit in your Headlights being one of my all-time favorite videos). Plus this sounds similar in ways to Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, which is totally messed up but I love it anyway (have you seen that? I reviewed it a while back – you may have read it). God, I’m rambling on a lot! Lol. Great review! I already wanted to see this but you’ve further convinced me it’s worth it. : )

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    • hahaha!!!! I’m glad I could excite some peoples with this review, I was really fortunate Under the Skin came by here so quick (relatively quick, I guess. I think this had been out about a month before I saw it), and when I saw it I just knew I had to get to it. I knew very little about it outside of Scarlett Johansson being the main star.

      I have never seen The Man Who Fell to Earth, but that sounds like one that doesn’t need to escape my viewing if it had David Bowie in it!!!! 😀

      And my experience with Glazer has only been this film so far, so I must look into his music videos. I was browsing through some trivia about him and saw that’s how he got his start. Very interesting. I am now left wondering if his music videos are as abstract as this thing is. . . .

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      • Oh you really must experience The Man Who Fell To Earth if you like Bowie!!! It’s messed up. I reviewed it on my site if you want to read it. : ) You should watch some Glazer videos for sure – I would think some would be on YouTube. I love Rabbit In Your Headlights but it’s a little disturbing & you might think I’m weird. ; ) The video for Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) was also great. : )

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      • Oh it’s much too late for that. . . I already think you’re weird. 😉 🙂 😀

        I’m on it now, I’m on a Bowie mission. I’ll look up your review first and get to watching it this week methinks. Been wanting to see Labyrinth too

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  7. Excelent write-up, my friend. Really curious about this one. But whenever I see Scarlett as she appears in this movie, with the black wig and the coat, I can’t help but think about all the memes they made when she fell down.

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  8. I was oddly excited about this movie even before I read your review. Now I’m even more so. I hope I get to see it. And then I hope I like it as much as you do.

    Great work!

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    • Thanks man, yes there’s much to be excited for here I have to say. It’s a mind-boggling experience, so I hope you come out the other end relatively unscathed! Look forward to a report from you if you get to it. I have a feeling you’ll find a way 🙂

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      • Same here man. The NBA Playoffs have succeeded in distracting me for a bit. I’m still to see The Amazing Spider-man 2. (At least in its entirety anyway, I actually had to leave the theater on account of people being too loud and obnoxious). I have a lot of work cut out for me here in the immediate future. Lots of catching up to do

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    • Thanks Joe! Agreed about Johansson, she’s really quite terrific. May never have been better. The story was also one of the most original and provocative I’ve seen in a good long while. Great, great film!

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