Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: "Under the Skin"

Now let me just be clear about one thing: “Under the Skin” is not for everybody. In fact, it’s not for most everybody.

Some of you may be tempted to just look at the positive score I gave this movie or read a little bit of the review, and then will get P.O.’d when you hate the movie. In the next few paragraphs I’ll tell you some things that should give plenty of warning if you’re one of those for whom this film was not intended. I am hereby resolved of all blame if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing.

“Under the Skin” is an art film that wears the clothes of a horror/sci-fi thriller. An American woman played by Scarlett Johansson drives a van around Scotland picking up strange men, luring them to an isolated place with the implication of sex, and then killing them. That’s pretty much the whole thing.

Supernatural forces are at work here. The woman is clearly not human; she does not have empathetic feelings toward her victims, at least not at first. Possibly she’s an alien sent here to harvest humans. And the men don’t just die; bewitched by her seductiveness, they wade into a pool of inky black goo and become absorbed, or something.

It’s unclear if the goo is a literal body of liquid or a representation of her powers. Actually, a great many things about “Under the Skin” remain unclear … but that’s as it’s intended.

In many ways the movie, directed and co-written (with Walter Campbell) by Jonathan Glazer, based on the novel by Michel Faber, reminded me of the filmmaking of Andy Warhol.

For those not familiar with the cinematic endeavors of Warhol and know him only as the guy who made art out of Campbell’s soup, he once made a movie titled “Empire” that was nothing but an eight-hour-long shot of the Empire State Building. Another, “Sleep,” was five-plus hours of a guy sleeping. In other words, he enjoyed screwing around with his audience.

While there’s nothing approaching that level of challenge in “Under the Skin,” clearly Glazer & Co. are not trying to spell everything out for us. Mostly it’s an exercise in mood and emotion, and I found the movie never ceased to engage me.

Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) carefully and methodically – slowly, some would say – uses skittery music, burbling sound effects and dark, evolving images in a way that scares us without any outright “boo” moments. Johansson is compelling and dangerous, managing to be incredibly menacing and, later, strangely sympathetic.

Most of the men she encounters look like everyday joes, and speak with Scottish accents so thick it’s at first comical, and then frustrating. I understood maybe 15 percent of what they said. Again, I think Glazer did this on purpose; after a while, we stop trying to understand their words and concentrate on how they’re ensorcelled by her.

Eventually, she encounters a man with a severe facial disfigurement, whose emotional pain and loneliness seep out of his skin like perspiration, and it knocks her off her stride. A mysterious motorcycle rider (played by real-life racer Jeremy McWilliams) who had been acting as her cohort morphs into her hunter, and we suspect this is a cycle that has been repeated before.

You may have also heard that Johansson does her first nude scene in this movie, and I’m here to report that is true. And honestly, it’s not that big a deal. This is a film about how a predator uses her body to lure men to their death, so being coy was not really an option. Nudity can sometimes be distracting in movies, but in a few cases it would be disingenuous not to have some nakedness; this is one of those times.

At first we only see Johansson from great distance and/or in high contrast shadows, and I was thinking this was going to be one of those deals where a big Hollywood star bravely goes nude-ish. But later, as the unnamed protagonist finds herself more connected to her human disguise, the camera becomes closer and more intimate in its gaze.

Hopefully, I’ve sufficiently educated you on whether there’s a chance you’ll enjoy “Under the Skin” … although “enjoy” isn’t really a word you associate with a movie like this. I found it eerie, unnerving and disturbing. There’s one scene on a beach where the woman shows such utter disdain for human life it actually left me shaking. Others may walk out of this movie simply shaking their heads.

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