Film review: UNDER THE SKIN, from Built For Speed

The last place we might expect to find Scarlett Johansen is in a low budget Scottish sci-fi flick about murderous aliens and the grim monotony of life in Glasgow but that’s exactly what we have in the creepy, obtuse film Under the Skin.

Sporting dark hair, a posh British accent and oddly anachronistic acid-wash jeans, Scarlett plays a mysterious woman and possible extra-terrestrial named Laura who cruises the freezing and rainy streets of Glasgow in a van picking up horny guys who think they’re in for an evening of free sex. When these Lotharios return to Laura’s remote house, a bizarre and disturbing fate awaits them.  Seemingly devoid of conscience, Laura makes substantial inroads into Glasgow’s male population before a tragic incident involving a small child and an encounter with a disfigured elicits man flickers of humanity and compassion in her and has her questioning her deadly mission.

Like it or not Under the Skin’s idiosyncratic Director Johnathon Glazer is determined to make the audience work here.  The opaque plot leaves much unanswered and occasionally makes it feel as if we are watching a short film stretched to feature length.  Also, Glazer films a number of scenes in near darkness, making it difficult to see what the hell is happening.  In fact a lot of Under the Skin was filmed Bowfinger-style with hidden cameras capturing real people who were (initially) unaware that they were part of a movie.  Consequently, many of the male victims are non-actors simply reacting naturally to Scarlett which gives the film verisimilitude but also means having to decipher near-unintelligible Glasgow accents and dialects.

Some viewers may switch off from this film and dismiss it as slow, pretentious, needlessly obscure and thinly-plotted.  Those who resist the desire for a more conventional and meaty sci-fi film, will, however, find this a hypnotic, intriguing and visually breath-taking movie.  Just as importantly they will also discover a film that takes a boldly original look at pressing issues such as homelessness, mental illness, social isolation and the sense of threat women experience in daily life. 

At first this bizarre down-beat film seems like nothing else in cinema.  Soon, though, it reveals a debt to other “stranger in a hostile world” films such as The Man Who Fell to Earth and Let the Right One In.   Also, with its precise framing and trippy imagery, Under the Skin makes occasional references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  With those influences it should be no surprise that this is a visually remarkable film and its stunning shots of windswept forests, roiling oceans and mist-shrouded mountains all captured by Daniel Landin’s eerie, 1970’s-inspired cinematography are some of the most memorable in cinema this year. Not quite a horror film, Under the Skin still has an ominous mood due largely to its superb use of music which includes skittering, nerve-jangling violins that wouldn’t be out of place in Alien or Psycho.

After a swathe of cookie-cutter rom-coms and super-hero extravaganzas, Scarlett Johansson has finally been given the opportunity to deliver a role that showcases her talents as an actor. Although she has little dialogue Scarlet powerfully depicts both the menace of an amoral predator and the existential fear of someone questioning their place in the world.  Let’s hope she continues down this darker path in her movies. 

Under the Skin is a moody, perplexing and aesthetically striking film that should prove riveting for those who enjoy more esoteric and experimental cinema.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Science fiction.

Classification: MA.

Director(s): Jonathan Glazer.

Release date: 29th May 2014.

Running time: 108 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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