One of the most auspicious debut films of the last twenty years was Jonathan Glazer's gritty crime film Sexy Beast. Featuring (arguably) the best performance of Ben Kingsley's career, and formally introducing Ray Winstone to American audiences, Sexy Beast was the work of a new master filmmaker, and a wonder to behold. With his follow-up film Birth, Glazer showed that he wasn't willing to be pigeonholed, trading in the violent world of low-level hoodlums for an enigmatic melodrama about a boy claiming that he is Nicole Kidman's reincarnated husband. It's been ten years since that film's release, and Glazer has finally returned with his third film, the sci-fi mood piece Under the Skin. Could it live up to the hype that's been built during his ten year hiatus, or would it show signs that this once promising director has officially gone off the deep end? Read on to find out...
Opening in total blackness, Under the Skin wastes no time in alerting the audience that this is not run of the mill fare. A cacophony of sounds and strange images become the eye of a woman (Scarlett Johansson). She is brought the body of another woman from whom she strips the clothes and takes them for herself. She then travels the Scottish countryside looking for men who have no discernible attachments to anyone else, and lures them into her van. She then seduces them and invites them back to her place. This pattern is repeated with varying degrees of success.
To say any more about this film would be to do it a disservice. For the first time in ages, a film gives literally zero indication of where it is headed, and it is up to the audience to not just figure it all out for themselves, but to interpret exactly what is happening. The only things that we know for certain are that she appears to be an alien of some sort, and she's on a mission to capture men, but for what purpose remains unclear, even to the bitter end of the film. There are likely a dozen interpretations as to what it is that she's using these men for, but to share any personal opinions might only serve to lead you in a certain direction when you see the film for yourself, which I cannot recommend you doing any higher.
The film is neatly divided into two distinct halves, and the juxtaposition of her assured demeanor in the first half with her curiosity in the second gives the film all the meat it needs to serve as something greater than just a collection of nicely composed images. Make no mistake about it, this is a director's showcase as much as any film that's ever been made, but the story isn't treated as some sort of ancillary afterthought as many directors who traffic in sensational imagery often do. Based on a book by Michel Faber, the film version jettisons any and all explanation, leaving it up to the individual viewer to ascertain precisely what they think is happening. This sort of thing has been attempted many times before, but never with the calm assurance that this film has in spades.
Slow but never boring, the film lures you in with its beauty, much the same way the main character lures unsuspecting Scottish men into her van and home, and suspends you in confusion as you seek to understand precisely what is going on, only to discover that you're not going to be spoon fed any sort of explanation, so you'd better start making sense of it all in whatever way works best for you. The film bills itself as science fiction, but plays more like an unrelenting horror film in which you're never entirely sure where the threat is coming from, but you know it's getting closer with each passing moment. Mica Levi's score aids in setting this mood remarkably well, and never allows the audience a sense of relief. It's a truly incredible pairing of image and sound.
Without giving too much away, there is a fantastic scene set on a beach near the twenty minute mark in the film. It contains one of the most haunting images ever put on film, and will shake you to the core with how simplistically effective it is. When coupled with an extended encounter our main character has with a disfigured man in the center piece scene of the first half, it almost certainly feels like a masterpiece in the making. The film's second half ambles a bit too much, and traffics a bit too heavily in ambiguity when compared with the first, but not enough to derail the entire film.
The comparisons will certainly fly about between this film and the work of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Nicolas Winding Refn, but this is clearly the work of an individual in much the same way all of their films are. It takes pages out of Kubrick's playbook, from the long tracking shots of The Shining, to the trippy visuals of 2001, but it never slips into outright mimicry, which is the most refreshing thing any filmmaker seeking to be compared to Kubrick can do. It also shirks the most basic tenet of Kubrick's best films, and that is an insight into the mind of the protagonist. With no narration, very little dialogue, and a heavy reliance on image and sound to convey its story, this film could never be mistaken for one made by Kubrick, and its infinitely better as a result. If the film has any kindred spirit, it is Nicholas Roeg's masterful 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth, and the comparisons are even more apparent in the second half.
Scarlett Johansson continues to surprise every time out of the gate lately, and her expressive face aids her in unbelievable ways in this film. The humor that is present in the film's first half grows out of her ability to go from charming to deadpan at the drop of a hat, and she's able to do so much with very little. It's almost the perfect companion piece to Her which relied solely on her voice, and when taken together, prove that with the right material, she's one of the best actresses working today. The litany of men she interacts with never hang around long enough to make much of an impact, with three notable exceptions, but with no names given, they become intentionally interchangeable, and all serve their purpose incredibly well. Their Scottish brogues also provide the film with some humor, and give a fantastic sense of what it might be like to be an alien trying to comprehend the English language.
Under the Skin is not a film for everyone. It will baffle and annoy some filmgoers, and its refusal to conform to any established rules of filmmaking will make it a downright maddening experience for some. Those willing to give themselves over to the experience will find a refreshingly original and gorgeously realized film that will be dissected and studied for years to come. If it feels groundbreaking, it's because it most certainly is, and it is bold enough to stand its ground and wait for the right viewers to come to it rather than the other way around. My only hope is that we don't have to wait another ten years for Glazer's next film, but however long the wait ends up being, it will be well worth it for the sharp left turn he's sure to make yet again.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]