I use hands to help my fellow man / I use hands to help with what I can / But when I face an unjust injury / Then I change my hand into FIST OF FURY

Under the Skin

tn_undertheskinThis director Jonathan Glazer, I can’t really put my finger on him. SEXY BEAST I didn’t like all that much, but most people seem to, or at least they did at the time. British crime comedy stuff, mostly normal, but people forget the weird interludes with the half man/half bunny. What was that about.

Second movie BIRTH. Not as recognized, but I loved that one, a unique and creepy thriller with potent Kubrickian filmatism. Got me excited for movie #3, which turned out to take nine years and be his least commercial work so far even though it’s a sci-fi movie that has Scarlett Johansson taking her clothes off. The thing that gets me is none of these movies seem like the same director to me. He’s mainly a commercial and video director, so he likes to play with different styles, but that never stopped David Fincher or Spike Jonze from being identifiable. Maybe I’m missing it by seeing them years apart.

UNDER THE SKIN is very simple. There’s this lady (Scarlett Johansson) that’s some kind of alien or something, she wears clothes taken off a dead lady (or previous alien?) by a guy on a motorcycle, she practices acting like a human, speaking like a human. Then she drives around in a car asking for directions from men, trying to give them a Penthouse Forum type fantasy but actually luring them in for… something. Johan’s Son is at peak hotness, maybe even helped sometimes by her literally inhuman coldness and by putting on a British accent (which sounds good to me, but I’m not picky). So I can believe every one of these guys’ reaction of (gulp)… does she really want me to go back to her house with her? How is this happening? There is definitely for sure a catch here, like one of those things where they tell you you won a boat but then they arrest you on outstanding warrants. Well, shit. I’m gonna go ahead and go with her anyway rather than live a life of regret.

mp_undertheskinThey’re mostly just regular dudes, not ugly but not in the Johansson League. I didn’t realize this, but it makes sense now that I read it, that for some of the scenes they really had her drive up and start talking to random dudes, and filmed them with hidden cameras. So it’s kinda like BORAT but without jokes. Or JACKASS without any shitting. No wonder their reactions seem so real. I wonder if any of these guys got boners. That would be embarrassing.

The most uncomfortable pick up scene is when she convinces a severely deformed young man walking along the road to let her give him a ride to the grocery store. Of course he knows something is up, of course he suspects all kinds of cruel intentions, but also how can he not eventually give in to this beautiful woman who keeps talking to him like she doesn’t notice, who lets him touch her? And maybe he doesn’t care if she’s up to something? Maybe it’s worth it?

I didn’t know until a buddy told me that this was a real guy, it’s his real face. (He was hired though, they didn’t really find him on the street like some of the other ones.) In fact I thought it was not very good makeup because it didn’t move very much. Shows you what I know. But even without knowing that it’s an extremely uncomfortable scene. This poor guy, it’s torture just to talk to a pretty lady. Even when he doesn’t know she’s an alien or something that’s gonna… drown him in the floor or whatever.

But actually there’s a scene that’s more brutal than that. She’s on a beach, it’s kinda stormy, the waves are violent. There’s this couple who are drowning. A dude tries to save them, but fails. She just stands and watches, then hits him on the head with a rock and takes him home. But there’s this baby sitting on the beach, just bawling. That couple that drowned, they must’ve had this baby there, then one of them must’ve been drowning and the other had to leave the baby behind to try to help. But planning to come back and get it. Now the baby’s just being left all alone, isolated from civilization, with the tide coming in. Jesus Christ, alien lady. That is some cold shit.

I mean I would probly accept a ride from her too though. Am I right fellas. Lady, I’d get in your white van to help you look for a lost puppy any day of the week.

Johansson gives a very dedicated performance, a cold robot staring at humans in befuddlement and then practicing how to be sexy to them. Between this, HER, LUCY and WINTER SOLDIER she’s had a hell of a year. Let her do whatever she wants.

Anyway that’s about it. Lots of quiet stretches, mumbled dialogue, variations on the same thing, cryptic things never remotely explained, naturalism suddenly jumping to the abstract. Kinda reminds me of BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW in its simple weirdness made epic with portentuous music (in this case by rookie composer Mica Levi).

I laughed at the end when it said it was based on a novel. It’s hard to imagine the book being longer than 20 pages. In the movie it doesn’t seem like there’s a huge amount going on, but with what’s there I enjoy having to figure out for myself. I don’t think I want an explanation of who the motorcycle guy actually is and what his job is specifically. Or the (spoiler) rapist guy at the end. I like wondering if he set her on fire because he saw what she was or because he’s a psycho and was gonna do that anyway.

By the way, that’s a pretty cool special effect when you see what I guess is her true form. But otherwise it’s so simple, so minimalistic for a sci-fi. Or for a movie.

Hey, is it just me or do you guys read the name “UNDER THE SKIN” and think

?

Nah, probly just me.

I like a cryptic arthouse picture like this every once in a while, but I gotta admit that part of the appeal is the lack of appeal. I actually overheard a woman telling her boyfriend about UNDER THE SKIN and how it was the worst movie she’d ever seen, because why is she doing this? It doesn’t explain. And why is she in Scotland? And these guys are ugly. Nothing happens. Even if I hadn’t heard that I see a movie like this and I picture the people who would hate a movie this quiet, slow and vague, who can’t comprehend that a movie would be like this on purpose, or that somebody would like it. So there’s kind of a rebellious edge to it.

I gotta admit, I didn’t love it. In the end it felt a little hollow to me, and I guess I didn’t know what kind of meaning to pack into the empty center there. But I enjoyed it for what it was. It’s not a movie about plot, or even character. It’s all mood and atmosphere, and that’s okay. If that’s not gonna do it for you just find the screengrabs online I guess.

TOMORROW: SPECIES

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 at 11:30 am and is filed under Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

29 Responses to “Under the Skin”

  1. The Original... Paul

    October 14th, 2014 at 11:44 am

    It sounds like a really interesting concept for a “bodysnatchers”-type movie actually. Literally seeing humanity through the eyes of an alien. I’d like to pick this one up.

    When you put it like that in your review, Vern, it also reminds me a little of 2012’s “Shame”, with the gender of the protagonist flipped.

  2. Although not without its flaws, I did kinda love this one. Like last year’s ONLY GOD FORGIVES, it’s like someone took a genre movie and abstracted it to the point of nothingness, just leaving atmosphere and style. There’s a story here, sure, but it’s hardly emphasized. Even the impenetrable Scottish accents just add to the otherworldly, beautiful abstruseness of it.

  3. Dude, there’s definitely plot and character development in there. The deformed guy raises some kind of empathy in alien Scarlet, and she gets curious about the humans she’s harvesting and decides to try out really being one, eating cake and getting laid, both which turns out are pretty disgusting for her. Then she gets raped and set on fire because, well, shit, that’s what it means to be human. Or anyway to be Scarlet Johannsen in a world of human men. Anyway, that’s what I got from the movie, and I didn’t read the book.

  4. Yeah, I didn’t have any trouble following the plot or her arc. It’s just, like, way de-emphasized compared to a normal movie. It’s like Glazer took out most of the exposition and the kinds of scenes that would help tell the story in a regular way, and just focused on the parts he liked and amped those up instead.

  5. Yes, to build off of what Bone Dog said above, at the start you see her character around town and the camera shows you she’s watching all these men. I think it’s meant to flip male gaze and gender politics on its head, here she’s the predator except it’s not about sex but it still kind of is, but only as a tool, not as an endgame. Then after the dude with the birth defect awakens some empathy in her, she’s becoming more human, which also means being vulnerable. And so she’s out cold in the rain, and opens up a little to an ok-seeming guy, and there’s the vulnerability of sex. But she’s not only become quasi-human, she’s become a quasi-woman, which creates a whole host of problems for her in the finale.

    It’s basically a female revenge flick in reverse.

  6. The baby scene stuck with me for a while.

  7. This is still one of my very favorite films of the year. I read that Glazer pared the book down to its essence, leaving a ton on the table. Like previous posters have commented, this is sci-fi at its best if you ask me. The mood of the film… Johannson’s mesmerizing performance… and the ideas at play, namely the old sci-fi adage of the alien slowly becoming human… all add to a tremendous experience. And that soundtrack- seeing it in the theater was unnerving.

  8. does anyone know if this is as good as Species??

  9. Here´s an very interesting interview with that deformed boy who actually really IS deformed.
    Before i read this i thought it was just an very good FX-Make-Up…
    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/apr/13/scarlett-johansson-screen-stigma-disfigurement

  10. I think it´s a pretty good movie about loneliness and that existence kinda stuff.
    That we as humans really don´t know where we came from and in the end…what´s there under our skin?

  11. This one sucked.

    Sorry, y’all.

    …next!

  12. Sorry, I didn’t know. I’ll go ahead and close the comments.

  13. I plan on seeing the whole movie, but I went ahead and looked up the screengrabs when I heard about….ya know and I’m sorry, but what can I say, I’m a guy of course I’m going to look

    but what I find interesting about the nudity is there’s a rawness to it you don’t usually see in movies, Scarlett Johansson looks like an actual human being (ironic given the subject matter of the movie) albeit a gorgeous one

  14. Since the film’s release on Blu Ray, all boys and girls can be relieved. With a high-resolution combat unit and a deft finger on the remote control, you can see at the very beginning of the movie -the scene in the white space- when Scarlett turns her back to the camera that it’s there:
    A fully human cellulite. A “ordinary mortal kinda style” cellulite!
    These extraterrestrial Hollywood residents are therefore still only human.

  15. Read that interview with the boy with the condition. He seems like an amazing person.

  16. The book was pretty good, and a bit more up on the world-building. The perspective coming almost entirely from the alien’s thoughts allows for processing of Scotland vs the canine home world. Which I’ve heard the movie doesn’t get into as much.

  17. She was clever too – nicking the lone Hibee in Glasgow. Who’d miss him?

    I don’t know if I liked this much, but I think it was unforgettable. This and NEVER LET ME GO really stay with me.

  18. Dikembe: It has pretty much remained stuck in my head ever since seeing it. I really liked it, but that scene alone pretty much convinced me that I might never want to again. That he was so close to the ocean was particularly disturbing, as I had a bad experience with water when I was a little guy myself.

  19. “I guess I didn’t know what kind of meaning to pack into the empty center there.”

    It’s funny that you say “empty center” because that’s EXACTLY what Glazer wants you to experience : “I think for Under the Skin it started with this image of a cipher, a mystery, at the middle of something familiar or something that we feel is known. The first time through, after my producer had given me a copy of the book it must’ve been ten years ago now, I read it and we did a script that was a very faithful adaptation of it. If you’ve read the book, it’s really quite explicit about what’s happening and the internal dialogue is very literal and narrative–it describes the hows of what she’s doing and the whys of the meat harvesting. It’s a different kind of story, and we wrote the script and it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what the book was about at its heart, which was this question, this image, of something ordinary that at its heart was not, you know, not ordinary so much as not knowable.

    It’s NOT KNOWABLE. She is truly the most alien character ever portrayed in film that I’m aware of. That he makes you see things from her perspective to an extent (the beach scene drained of emotion, unfolding mechanically; the english-speaking voices sounding unintelligible) was pretty incredible.

    I don’t agree with the commenters who believe that she goes through this arc in which she becomes more human, or at least I don’t want to admit that they’re right. While I think that the experience with the deformed guy MIGHT produce something we would call empathy in her, I think the point is more to obscure her true feelings: to present us with something we think we recognize, but then fuck with us for thinking that we recognize it.

    I was kind of ambivalent to this movie while I was watching it, but it, you know, ah, burrowed beneath my flesh. I couldn’t get it out of my head and I can’t really remember the last time a movie was this rewarding to think about. Tied with Gravity for MOTDSF.

  20. I think the last time I had a movie this stuck in my head was DRIVE. I’m not a big horror guy at all, in fact I hate quite a lot of it, but I really felt that if more films of the vein were like that I’d probably be more game. To align with what renfield just said, the fear of the unknown is possibly the most terrifying one of all. Here we’re dealing with the unknown motivation behind why these beings want human flesh. Male ones particularly, as I think they kind of cottoned to the fact that women seducing men is like killing fish in a barrel, and they probably had enough female “suits” to use to gather the men into that eerie space where they are swallowed up.

  21. I’m not sure what I thought about the scene with the guy with neurofibromatosis. Maybe she sympathised with him being an outsider due to his appearance (in the book, she has been surgically altered or multilated to fit human appearance), or maybe, as is suggested by the baby scene, she doesn’t relate so doesn’t see him as different from any of the rest of us.

    Of course (SPOILER) that would muddle why she lets him go.

    This one relates to my job in science a wee bit (as someone who ends up observing things that most people are happy to not know about) it has really made me question what I do.

  22. This was a good movie. I liked it as an enigmatic type film, a bit of Lynch, some Kubrick. The parts in her dilapidated house where she drowned her victims was reminiscent of Isabelle Adjani’s adultery den in Zulawskis POSSESSION. I like horror more than sci-fi but this didn’t get too sci-fiey. It was fairly grounded in the real world, it’s just that the events of the story were mostly horrific and bleak.

    The landscape and ocean cinematography was impressive and evocative. There’s something wild, scary, beautiful and absolutely depressing about the oceans off the English coast.

    It was no mystery she was an alien, but the movie didn’t make her motives or purpose clear. That’s fine, I don’t require all my movies to be spelled out for me. So my interpretation was that she was becoming more and more human, in an emotional sense, starting with her encounter with the deformed man. After he sank into the black abyss in her apartment she went down and stared into that mirror for a while, then the next scene she’s letting him out the front door, and he runs home naked.

    She then goes on a bit of a journey – tries eating chocolate cake like a normal person (also like Eli the vampire in LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, who tried candy and couldn’t stomach it. Another predatory creature of the night). Then she let’s herself get taken in by the man on the bus who cares for her, clothes her, brings her cups of tea, goes on long walks, carries her over mud puddles like a gentleman. When they end up in bed, it seems the most natural of all her encounters, and she freaks out after he orgasms in her. So there’s some kind of awakening going on inside her.

    The guy on the motorbike, her ‘handler’, or fellow alien, begins to get suspicious when she lets the deformed guy go and he has to track him down and finish the job. The handler seemed to get some kind of insight of what was going on inside her by looking in the same mirror she stared at earlier. He then brings in two backup handlers on bikes and they head off after her. It’s like she was a hitman who didn’t finish the job, so they send in the replacement killers. The rapey guy at the end who sets her on fire, he could have been a replacement killer, or a Victor The Cleaner, we don’t know for sure.

    One other thing to point out. The dead girl who gets pulled from the river at the beginning by the handler – Scarlett undresses her and changes into her clothes and goes about seducing and killing men. Maybe that’s what the dead girl was previously doing. Again, we don’t know cause it’s not explained. But the last shot of the dead girl, we see a tear fall from her left eye. So was she also an alien who had been undergoing a change prior to being killed, and was becoming more human?

  23. I actually stopped watching the film after I have fallen asleep. Ms.Johansson is OK but the film was simply not that good. Cool info about he guy with the deformed face. I actually thought he looked similer to the guy in The Mask.

  24. “and she freaks out after he orgasms in her”

    I have no idea how people manage to draw this conclusion. He doesn’t orgasm in her. He can’t even get it in. He tries for a moment, gives up, and she’s like “what’s wrong,” checks, and sees that she doesn’t have a vagina.

  25. Good point renfield. That’s not to say he *didn’t* orgasm somewhere in the vacinity of her nether regions. The guy looked pretty hard up, so to speak. But yeah, it makes sense that she would wonder why there was no equipment down there.

  26. I am now convinced that this movie would be even better if at one point Scarlett Johansson, since she’s playing an alien, looks at the camera and says “AYYYYY LMAO”

  27. How did you not like Sexy Beast?? this was a classic movie. Ben Kingsley is one of the best movie psychopaths ever! — ” Not this time, Gal. Not this time. Not this fucking time. No. No no no no no no no no no! No! No no no no no no no no no no no no no! No! Not this fucking time! No fucking way! No fucking way, no fucking way, no fucking way! You’ve made me look a right cunt!” –ahh pure poetry, right?

  28. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it but I remember SEXY BEAST being pretty great. Kingsley is just the most relentless character. It’s kind of frightening to learn that he based it on his grandmother.

    Speaking of which, I cannot think of a more frightening scene in a movie than I ever have than the one on the beach in this one, the implications of which actually kept me up at night after seeing it. The inherent horror of it is in the very real possibility of what’s unfolding before your eyes, in contrast to being picked up by a beautiful woman who leads you to a labyrinth which sucks you in and kills you.

  29. A few weeks after seeing this, I had a disturbing dream, which involved a wild ocean and a woman from my past. Testament to the creepy power of the film, and my own strange psyche. I rarely remember my dreams, but I won’t be forgetting this one anytime soon. There were no babies involved, thankfully.

    SEXY BEAST stands up as a minor classic of cockney gangster films. More so than Guy Ritchies macho artifice films of that time.

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