Under The Skin is a daring envisioning of Michael Faber’s novel, following an alien seductress that goes by the name of Laura, played by Scarlett Johansson, roaming the grids of Glasgow preying on young men. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, whose wealth of experience in glossy ads and music videos is hugely evident in his striking visuals. It is only his third feature, and his first for about a decade, so it is interesting to see his style bleed through into a full-length film wrapped around a fully developed narrative. The haunting sci-fi thriller takes on themes human existence and is by no means easy viewing, leaving the viewer on edge for its entirety due to a deeply unsettling soundscape.
The plot juxtaposes the voyeuristic qualities of Taxi Driver with the colloquial patter of River City, making for some cringe worthy dialogue interspersed with explorative cinematography. Laura continually asks Scottish residents for directions, pulling up in her transit van and luring them in with her sweet London inflection. Some scenes were shot by hidden camera with non-actors, creating a documentary vibe which sits oddly alongside the futuristic score and the dead stare of an emotionless yet predatory Johansson. The tension in the opening hour is like nothing else I can recall, but as the extraterrestrial creature appears to have an identity crisis after a fascinating encounter with a disfigured man, the plot loosens its grip slightly, giving a welcomed moment or two to breath. That being said, it remains aesthetically interesting throughout and twists to a mind-boggling finale that bravely and defiantly refuses to explain itself.
Furthering an exciting turn in focus, Scarlett Johansson undergoes a physical transformation for the role, weirdly not dissimilar to her dehumanisation for her portrayal of an operating system in Spike Jonze’s Her. In both, she’s shed the blonde bombshell beauty that has helped her carve her career to tackle tricky subject matter. Her disguise of jet black hair, snow white complexion and voluptuous red lips give off a scary new look and her performance is mesmerising as she draws us into her murky liquid limbo. Her interactions with her victims are suitably awkward as budding lotharios deliver their chat-up lines with humorous Weegie charisma. Angel’s Share star Paul Brannigan is the stand out amongst the bunch. He approaches Laura in a busy nightclub but his naive advances get him a very different evening than he had bargained for.
An ambitious picture from a clear visionary mind, ‘Under The Skin’ has pacing issues but its use of Kubrick-esque imagery and chilling sounds have a lasting affect. The strong concept maybe could have worked even better if condensed down to a shorter format as the story arc peters out a little around halfway in. It is refreshing though for a filmmaker to discard conventions in order to push their ideas to the surface and Glazer no doubt plies his trade as only he sees fit, creating an undeniably unique cinematic experience, anchored by a spellbinding lead performance.
See the trailer: