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The opening sequence is excellent, weird, and sets the mood for the rest of the film.

Under the Skin is a peculiar movie. Many will seek it out for its promise of surrealism, science fiction, and ScarJo nudity. All will get what they’re looking for and then some.

Because it’s an evocative rather than narrative film, Under the Skin delivers story in only the most minimal of terms. Sparse on dialogue, visible conflict, and recognizable tropes, it may test the patience of those used to more conventional narrative techniques. There’s also that it’s what people generally call “slow”, though I usually reserve that for movies that ineffectively use tangents. As long as slower paced movie uses its pace effectively rather than thoughtlessly, I hesitate to use “slow” as a criticism. But in case a slow movie turns you off, there you go.

Under the Skin‘s merits are in its simplicity and commitment. The story is minimalistic and intensely focused, which is part of why the film can get away with being implicit almost all of the time. The commitment is really to concept, to its own weirdness and lack of exposition, and to its lead actress who has to carry the whole thing on her shoulders and tell us everything we need to know with body language, inflection in her sparse dialogue, and small facial tics we barely know we’ve seen. Because she’s up to this and because Under the Skin‘s simple story is actually very sad and beautiful, with interesting and occasionally spectacular visuals, the film as a whole is stirring and singular. One of those movies that people will love for the right reasons.

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As much of her as the movie shows, it never feels gratuitous; the tone is always too clinical, too alien, or too intimate for that.

Scarlett Johansson is an unnamed alien in a young woman’s body. Alone, she stalks men and qualifies them for seduction and processing in specially chosen locations. These men, all of whom are chosen based on whether or not they’ll be missed immediately, are used for some unknown purpose. The evidence of what’s going on is carefully hidden by motorcycle-riding cleaners, presumably also aliens wearing human skin.

For much of its running time, the film settles into an episodic rhythm of the alien girl’s routine. Slowly, it becomes apparent that she’s changing as a result of what she’s been doing and seeing. This is shown, rather than told, and it’s pretty subtle. Because the movie is so deliberate and scenes usually last a while, it’s also hard to miss even for its subtlety. The turning point is actually a fairly dramatic scene on a beach, where the alien girl leaves a squalling infant behind after watching its parents drown. Later, the film’s eerie soundtrack recalls those cries as she looks at herself in her van’s rearview mirror.

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The beach sequence and its aftermath are among the most memorable scenes.

Some have described Under the Skin as a movie about the preciousness of life, and an exploration of humanity. I’m not sure I fully agree as those descriptions seem somewhat trite. That said, Under the Skin is a very humane film in many ways and certainly deals with a realization of humanity. At first, the alien girl doesn’t care about human life and the audience is kept in the dark about what happens to the men she seduces. As the film progresses, we see more and more. There’s a symmetry here where in each scene of her drawing some man, seemingly in some kind of moth-like trance, she is more and more naked. Not as if it requires more nakedness to attract each man, but more as if she herself is exploring more and more of what she has become in a woman’s skin.

But this isn’t the only way the film is humane. There’s irony, also. When she meets a young man who is horribly disfigured, the alien girl treats him exactly the same way as she treats every other man. Like she can’t tell that he would be repulsive to most human women. This is ironic because she treats him better than probably anyone has ever treated him, literally because she can’t tell the difference. Luckily for him (at first), he’s also the first of her victims that she takes pity on and releases. This could indicate that she does recognize his difference from others, but I’d argue that it means the opposite. The statement here is more about how she has changed and it happens to coincide with ironically humane treatment of a man unlikely to receive much of that from other humans.

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Adam Pearson actually has those facial deformities in real life.

After that, she’s on the run. Whatever she was doing, whatever her role and relationship in whatever is going on with these aliens (and they are definitely aliens), it’s now undone. This coincides with a kind of awareness of herself she has slowly been developing. She tries on the human skin, but it’s only after a while that she attempts to explore what’s underneath it. That may sound trite itself, but it fits and I suppose it does speak for the idea that this movie explores “what it is to be human”. Certainly its lead character does, and this leads her to interesting places.

More than this, there’s a point where we finally see what happens to the men as they are left in the inky black pool she draws them to. There’s a moment of recognition as one of the men, there much longer and beginning to desiccate, touches a newcomer. There’s revulsion mixed in with the recognition as the newcomer watches the first man die, his insides sucked away leaving only his skin. There’s so much humanity in that moment that the horror of their fate is a punch in the gut.

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This moment is absolutely heartbreaking.

In trying to be human, the alien girl has successes and failures. Some are even comical, but it all ultimately leads to a tragic place. Up to a point, she’s seen facets of humanity that are kind or at least appealing to her, but it’s only at the very end that she sees the ugliness in us that perhaps she is rejecting among her own kind. A man in the forest tries to rape her and in doing so, reveals the creature underneath. Another irony is revealed her: the alien creature is beautiful. She is a kind of oily black, very humanoid, and sleek in a way humans aren’t. She isn’t sensual the way a human might find another human, but beautiful in a remote and unearthly sense. That said, her own horror as she stares at the blinking eyes of her human face is palpable and sad.

The rejection of her true form as the rapist wordlessly reacts to the unknown thing she represents (while also covering up his own crime) dovetails with her rejection of her kind. More irony.

I guess the theme of this review, if not the film itself, is irony. Under the Skin is based on a dark comedy, a book that is by all accounts so different from the movie that if you’re really curious about the details (like why the aliens take people) I’d actually suggest reading the synopsis on this one. The movie is a tone poem version, adapting the book the way a music video adapts a song. The thing it seems to preserve best, and be most interested in, is that sense of irony. Though Under the Skin never feels funny, it definitely evokes feeling. It’s tragic, sad, and strange and one of the best movies of 2014.

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Johansson effortlessly evolves the character from sociopathic to sympathetic.

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