Given enough liquor, an editorial hand best described as laissez-faire and some daft courage, I would describe Under the Skin as a work of the ”understandable sublime.” And, yeah, I’ll own the scare quotes. As the film ended and the credits began to fade in I heard a voice behind me say: ‘what?’ Exactly. Under the Skin is director Jonathan Glazer‘s adaptation of a Michel Faber novel. Glazer and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell craft a the-less-one-knows-the-better science-fiction of sorts; a balance of emotion and intelligence, pregnant with anticipation and unwilling to kowtow to expectation. The opening shot of a dot of light either approaching or receding (this film like to have things all ways) signals the trippy headiness to come. Credit Glazer’s restraint in keeping the narrative grounded and not allowing it to go so far up its own elliptical ass as to register as incomprehensible. The plot centers on a woman (probably an alien) who drives a white windowless van — the choice of serial killers and electrical contractors alike — as she cruises the streets of Scotland for men. I say ‘probably an alien’ because Under the Skin works best as a tabula rasa. Like the film’s protagonist, the audience’s perspective is limited to only what is shown, what remains relies on interpretation(s). If this story were being told in ancient Greece or Rome, ‘god,’ ‘angel’ or ‘demon’ would stand in for ‘alien’ quite well. The audience surrogate is Laura played by Her herself, Scarlett Johansson. From her tight acid wash jeans, fur coat, and deep black hair, Johansson is perfectly cast as a seductress who uses her charms as a means to an end than for mere exploitation. The seduction scenes — perhaps, best thought of as ‘said the spider to the fly’ — feel clinical, cold, and passive; which is the point. This is a working-alien’s picture, the story of a mid-level employee with quotas to meet and sluices to fill, nothing more, nothing less. She’s kept on task by a nameless and silent motorcycle riding handler. The silence and anonymity of the rider is one of Under the Skin’s essential elements. Like Laura, his personality is a projection, a shadow on the wall. His character requires no explanation because no explanation is required. In a film that’s only about received information, the rider is ‘pure cinema,’ uncut. For the production, the van Johansson drives was tricked out with hidden cameras so she could improvise her dialogue. Glazer stowed away in the back as Johansson neé Laura drove around Glasgow propositioning unknowing Scotsmen (read: non-actors, real people) to come along for the ride. This candid camera approach adds a bit of clever invention to what are otherwise long stretches of watching lens flares flash across Johansson’s face as she drives random men from place to place. Like much of Under the Skin, the medium is the message. The improvisational moments allow Glazer to explore the human capacity for play which gets constantly undercut with the matter-of-fact-ness of the plot and what Laura wants (or thinks she wants). The improvisation that hews closest to the film’s alien heart is when Adam Pearson, who suffers from neurofibromatosis, steps into Johansson’s world. Pearson was actually cast for the film even though his scenes were improvised as well. His appearance becomes a turning point for Johansson’s character (and the audience) because the humanity Pearson has to bring goes further and deeper than any of the other previous assignations. At one point Person pinches his hand (easily the frontrunner for most poignant insert shot of 2014) to determine if what’s happening is real or only a dream. He’s human, but his disability marks him as an outsider. This two-sides-of-the-same-coin approach is why Under the Skin sticks and baffles with equal measure. Humans, so complicated. Mica Levi‘s score should be subtitled ‘music for every future horror movie trailer in the next six years.’ Not since Clint Mansell’s music for Requiem for a Dream has there been a composition so precise, so primed for pervasiveness. Rather than go for didactic Hans Zimmer-like button pushing, Levi finds a beautiful creepiness in liquid loops and invasive melodies. There’s some Johnny Greenwood wood block dissonance mixed in as well. Levi also combines the mysterious earthiness of something like Vangelis’s Blade Runner theme and the right amount of Ligotti (especially in the opening ‘reverse Star Gate’ scene) to make neck hairs stand at attention. I’m leaving out commenting on the film’s most bravura sequences, again, the less one knows going in, the better. I will say one scene in particular (two actually) made my chest tighten. I was like those poor Scottish saps who decide: red lipstick, doe-like eyes, window-less van, what could happen? How alien Under the Skin appears depends on how familiar it feels. For such a singular vision, Glazer hits on universal themes. How comfortable are we (in our own skins?) with what is unknowable about ourselves? The final shot in the film closes a loop, a loop we all, as humans, and all sentient beings must close. How we meet that end brings us closer to understanding ‘what.’ The voice I heard behind me may have been confused or frustrated, but s/he asked the right question, the eternal proxy, the unknowable sublime: what? Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 2 Responses Going on Instinct: An Interview with cartoonist Garry Brown - Comics Bulletin August 19, 2014 […] from love) in our lives. One woman’s Transformers: Age of Extinction is another woman’s Under the Skin. Little exists to differentiate the two besides taste … for which there’s no […] Log in to Reply Top Ten Favorite 2014 Sci-Fi Movies - Psycho Drive-In January 23, 2015 […] you watch a film and have no idea what’s going on, but you can’t turn away. Under the Skin is kind of like that. Directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, Under […] Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.