Prepare to see Scarlett Johansson as you’ve never seen her before folks, in more ways than one too. With Under the Skin, Johansson has given a tour de force performance, naked both emotionally and physically. If it weren’t for just how obtuse and uncommercial the film was, I’d say that her Oscar campaign should begin immediately, but I know that Jonathan Glazer‘s ambitious movie is not for everyone, and that’s putting it mildly. Almost as if the late Stanley Kubrick had remade the first film in the Species franchise, this flick is challenging for sure, but just as rewarding. Johansson, and the film on the whole, is haunting and hypnotic, with mesmerizing imagery that stays with you long after the lights come up. I can see this movie not working at all for some folks, but I can also see it becoming some people’s favorite flick of all time, it’s just that layered and different. You have to work a bit to find Glazer’s message, but Johansson’s potentially career best performance definitely helps to lead you along. I can safely say that Under the Skin is a unique and singular moviegoing experience, both in terms of the magnificent visuals on display and also in terms of the towering lead performance. Thus far in 2014, it’s easily one of the best things that I’ve seen this year. It’s not mainstream cinema at all, but it’s unequivocally going to be one of the best options playing at your local art house, so don’t pass it up.
A seductively simple premise cleverly masks what’s going on in the film, though the intentionally odd and disorienting opening sequence should let you know that something different is afoot.. On the surface, we’re just watching an alien (Johansson) that’s arrived on Earth to prey on the male population. It takes the form of a beautiful human female, practices our language, and prowls Scotland, looking for hitchhikers, lonely men, and just about anyone willing to be fooled by it’s/her fairly forward attempts to pick them up. Those who are seduced by “her” (I’ll just stick with calling the alien a her now, since it’s easier) wind up entering her lair and are never seen again. Apparently, we’re being harvested by her race, making her basically a middle man, along with a shadowy figure who rides in on a motorcycle to clean up any messes that she might leave. As she preys, she begins to learn about us as well, seemingly developing some human emotions and feelings in the process. That leads to a complication in her mission, as that was never part of the plan. I don’t want to say exactly where the movie goes, but it does really manage to defy your expectations at just about every single turn possible. There’s a bit in common with The Man Who Fell to Earth if you’re looking to reach for comparisons, but this really is its own animal.
I can’t say enough about Scarlett Johansson here. If there were any justice in this world, she’d be an early frontrunner for the Best Actress Oscar, but in reality she’s a long shot to even by nominated by the Academy for this. Much as it’s an amazingly worthy performance, I think she’ll have to wait a little longer to become an Academy Award nominee. That being said, she’s fantastic. It’s a brave performance, as she bares her body and her soul, all in the process of showing us a character unlike any she’s ever played before. Some might get caught up in her taking her clothes off on screen here, but that’s well beyond the point. Johansson challenges herself as an actress in just about every way that she can here, and the results speak for itself. Considering how she’s basically the only professional in the flick, it’s even more of an impressive performance, with her seduction scenes being improvisation with random men on the street. Some of the other cast members include Paul Brannigan and Lynsey Taylor, but this is Johansson’s show, bar none. You really can’t imagine anyone else playing this role.
Jonathan Glazer saw something in Michael Faber‘s novel of the same name, and along with Walter Campbell developed something truly unique here. Glazer is one hell of a visual director, but even when things aren’t showy, they’re always memorable. Without spoiling certain plot developments, a scene set on a beach, our first look at the alien’s lair, an encounter with a deformed man, and most of the final section of the film are distinctly lodged in my mind. This movie puts a spell on you, I must say. Knowing how many of the scenes are shot with real life going on at the same time also really makes you stand in awe of what this filmmaker has accomplished. Glazer also deserves massive amounts of credit for connecting so strongly with Johansson and helping to craft that performance. One other thing of note is the sound in the movie, which is also rather singular. Mica Levi‘s score is the best I’ve heard this year so far. Impatient viewers might feel that Glazer plods along a bit more than he perhaps needed to, but if you’re as hypnotized as I was, you likely won’t notice. He works a lot into his film during the 108 minute running time, including a bit about human nature in general, but it’s another credit to him that you don’t feel overwhelmed, or at least I didn’t.
To me, Under the Skin is the sort of special indie flick that you want to see and discuss immediately after. From the visuals to the sound to the performance from Johansson, it’s all standout work that I’d go so far as to say needs to be seen. You’re going to be challenged by this movie, I won’t tell you otherwise, but it’s a challenge that you should accept. If you allow yourself to be sucked in by Under the Skin, you’re in for a cinematic experience that you’ll remember all throughout 2014. It’s a film that I really can’t recommend enough to you all.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!