‘Under the Skin’ provides a creepy, satisfying critique

by Varun Bhuchar | 4/20/14 6:16pm

In “Under the Skin” (2013), Scarlett Johansson drives a large white van around Scotland picking up young men for the time of their lives. She’s as beautiful and enchanting as ever, and these lads can’t resist her charms. When she takes them home, she leads them to her room, disrobes, puts them in a preserving fluid and sucks out their organs.

Behind the wacky plot of “Under the Skin,” though, is a beautifully abstract film that looks like David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick decided to team up with impeccable results.

The film begins with a pinprick of light shining through the darkness. Then an eye begins to materialize in front of the viewer. In what I assume is a nod to the abstract montages of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), “Under the Skin” hits the ground running with a wordless 10-minute sequences that introduces the viewer to the habits of Johansson’s nameless alien character and her menacing caretaker.

Like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Under the Skin” is more of a cinematic poem than a straightforward story — it uses broad strokes to show the viewer one blown-up section of a theme rather than the whole picture. Unlike Shane Carruth’s insufferable “Upstream Color” (2013), “Under the Skin” manages to succeed in portraying the beauty captured during a journey of self-discovery, even if the protagonist happens to be a man-eating alien.

Underlying the film is a sense of uncanniness — the kind that comes from the abandoned, old house in your hometown. Part of it is due to the ghostly characteristic that Scotland’s natural fog machine casts on the cinematography. Part of it is also due to the film’s eerie soundtrack, which sounds like Jonny Greenwood’s score from “There Will Be Blood” (2007)somehow infused with more angst.

A nice thing about European countries is that they’re pretty cool with concepts that America might consider taboo, like underage drinking, nudity and socialism. The last point is especially important because most, if not all, European countries have a national film commission willing to fund film directors like Jonathan Glazer and his quirky projects, namely “Under the Skin.”

Like his fellow countrymen in Radiohead, Glazer has transformed “Under the Skin” into his “Kid A,” a radical departure from his old style. His two previous films, the ultraviolent and brilliant “Sexy Beast” (2000) and the unsettling “Birth” (2004), are pretty straightforward. Nine years later, Glazer is leading the charge into the relatively untouched depths of neo-surrealism.

Speaking of European sensibilities, Johansson plays a character who emotes so little, yet so much. Kind of like the antiheroes Ryan Gosling plays when he teams up with Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, Johansson’s character is not particularly heroic, but she is vulnerable and real, and like the doll she literally is, she’s a sight to see. Her British accent isn’t the best, but she nails a deep stare into the Scottish Highlands with her trademark smolder.

The most extraordinary thing about “Under the Skin” is its critique of what it is like to be a woman in modern society. Everything about the nameless protagonist emphasizes how she is alien in every sort of way, especially in terms her body and the challenges she faces harvesting men for her job.

The film’s conclusion will upset and shock some viewers, but the sadistic turn seems necessary. It’s the only way to truly get under Johansson’s character’s skin.


Rating: 8.6/10

“Under the Skin” is currently playing at the Nugget.