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Awesome: 38.1%
Worth A Look47.62%
Average: 9.52%
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Total Crap: 4.76%

2 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Under the Skin (2014)
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by Stephen Groenewegen

"Highland flings"
4 stars

Under the Skin is an intriguing slab of art-house science-fiction from English director Jonathan Glazer. What's refreshing about the film is its reliance on wordless sound and striking visuals to tell the story, rather than expository dialogue.

An unnamed alien in human female guise (played by Scarlett Johansson and called ‘The Female’ in the Internet Movie Database) drives the streets of Glasgow, Scotland enticing lonely single men into her van. She takes them to a secret location, seduces them into removing their clothes, and entices them to wade into a black pool that drains the life out of them.

She works in concert with a leather-clad motorcyclist (former British motorcycle champion Jeremy McWilliams as ‘The Bad Man’) who is never far away and ties up loose ends and removes evidence from the scenes of her abductions. The Female lures a shy man who is unused to human contact into her van (he is played by Adam Pearson, whose neurofibromatosis has radically altered his head shape and facial appearance). The encounter triggers a change in The Female and she abandons her mission to escape into the countryside.

Sound is crucial to the mood Glazer (who also directed Birth, 2004 and Sexy Beast, 2000) establishes in the film. Mica Levi’s avant-garde score is alternately beautiful and discordant and feels as much a part of the film’s aural landscape as the sound design of Johnnie Burn (and his team). Alien voices babbling at the start alert us to The Female’s origins before we meet her. Another memorable sequence is punctuated by the heart-rending wails of an abandoned baby.

Visually, the film begins in darkness. Inky blackness also consumes The Female’s victims. The Bad Man moves in and out of the dark; at the start of the film, he is swallowed in the gloom of night, only to emerge with a corpse over his shoulder. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin paint evocative pictures on the canvas of a wet and snowy Scottish landscape.

If the strong images and obtuse storytelling give Under the Skin the whiff of high art, Glazer brings the film down to earth with his use of non-actors. They lend the pick-up sequences in the van (which were often improvised) a natural feel. The manner, appearance and dialogue of the victims is mostly everyday and ordinary. Glazer and Landin also filmed real people on Glasgow streets and in a shopping mall, and it gives us a window into how The Female sees - and becomes changed by - our world.

Scarlett Johansson would be a revelation, if she hadn’t already recently turned out strong - and very different - performances in Her, Lucy and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She is eerily, robotically silent while assimilating new information from her surroundings or hunting prey, then flirtatious and chatty with men, as if an ‘on’ switch has been flicked. She makes The Female compelling rather than repulsive; we can relate, at least to some extent, to her desire to learn about the world.

The film takes its title, location and premise from a novel by Michel Faber. Walter Campbell (who never even read the book!) and Glazer are credited as writers. They’ve stripped out most of the book’s plot, satire and dialogue (The Female barely even speaks in the film’s last third). Glazer’s decision to keep the Scotland setting makes perfect sense: the countryside is wild, remote and ravishingly beautiful, with a sense of danger in the isolation that it brings.

That the film is as hypnotic as it is owes something to the startling transitions and juxtapositions of Paul Watts’ editing and Glazer’s conception. Under the Skin is full of indelible images that have stayed with me since I’ve seen it: a desolate pebble beach, dense fog curling over the highlands, snow and ash mingling in the atmosphere, the lone motorcyclist viewed from above cutting a winding path through a valley in the rain.

While we see at one point what is literally under The Female’s skin, the title also refers to what she sees under the skin of the (mostly) men that she meets. But the images, sounds and mood of the film also got under my skin and left me with the feeling of having seen something unusual and extraordinary.

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originally posted: 12/28/14 09:59:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Venice Film Festival For more in the 2013 Venice Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2013 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/15/17 Louise Definitely a 'mood' film to be experienced rather than understood. A visual & aural treat. 4 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell not bad but over hyped 3 stars
5/12/15 David Green Amazing 5 stars
12/20/14 jcjs33 a big YUK...i'm not jumping in the bandwagon...junk 1 stars
7/18/14 Langano Interesting 4 stars
7/09/14 Merry Scarlett so radiant, filmmaking so layered and interesting, a rare treat 4 stars
6/30/14 Darkstar As close to Kubrick as you are going to get. Simply amazing and disturbing. 5 stars
4/13/14 mr.mike Art house sci-fi flick that many will find difficult to get thru. 3 stars
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  04-Apr-2014 (R)
  DVD: 15-Jul-2014


  DVD: 15-Jul-2014

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