★★★★ out of ★★★★★
A look back at one of the least-sexy sexy movies ever made. Under the Skin is the rough equivalent cold wet blanket of a movie that will absorb your soul and use it as a cleaning rag. Scarlett Johansson takes huge risks at the height of her acting career, and it really pays off.
Directed with Jonathan Glazer
Kudos to Scarlett Johansson for taking this role. Under the Skin featured a famous and famously beautiful actress at the height of her powers, stripped her bare in a way that rather than titillating, is emotionally draining. In 2003, Johansson was already an ascending star. having already appeared in twelve credits, including Ghost World, Eight Legged Freaks, Girl with the Pearl Earring, and notably, Lost in Translation, But, at the time that Under the Skin began production, she was not yet the bankable A-list star that she would eventually become. She was graduating out of child acting roles, and taking on an indie sci-fi horror thriller with really mature themes would have been a risky, and potentially artistically brave move.
It took Jonathan Glazer TEN YEARS to make this movie though. By the time it got released in 2013, Johansson was an A-list star. She had already appeared as Black Widow in Iron Man 2 and The Avengers and now was a recognizable face to millions of fans. So when this risque small release film got released, this had the surface appearance of something rather shocking. She took a role where she not only had to get naked but also had to dial her acting way, way back to the point of what amounts to a ten-mile stare for a good portion of the movie. As it turns out, it was a good career move, and cemented her reputation as an actor of the first rank, as well as being a glamorous film star. This was a lucky threading of the Hollywood needle that so many actresses struggle with.
Unlike a film like Species, which revels in the form of a beautiful woman (Natasha Henstridge), Under the Skin uses Johansson’s body as an automaton. A soft, beautiful mannequin, largely devoid of the seductive power that you would have expected. Even though, as a major plot premise, she uses her body to seduce and trap the unwary. As it turns out, this challenge proves to be central to the effectiveness of the film. This is no exploitation film. It is an art-house think piece that bears the proud A24 badge of respect.
Johansson is a being simply described as The Female. In fact, none of the characters have names. We first encounter her on the side of a rural Scottish twisting road, in the back of a brightly lit cargo van, naked and standing over the dying body of a young woman who was unceremoniously tossed into the van by The Female’s accomplice: a mysterious “man” on a motorcycle. The Female is stoic and unmoved by watching the paralyzed woman’s life before her drain away as she sheds a tear of recognition that she has met her end. It appears that The Female and her motorcycle companion are working together in some bizarre abduction scheme.
The Female has been scouring Scotland, preying upon single impressionable men, luring them with offers of rides in her van, and flattery. She cruises back streets of Glasgow, looking for men walking alone, and engages them with simple conversation, claiming to be new in town, and needing directions. Men. So easy to fool. She questions them about whether they are lonely, to see if they are single. “Do you think I’m pretty?” Now, in this situation, this would be a pick-up line. And if you are being propositioned by someone who looks like Scarlett Johansson, today’s you’re lucky day, right? WRONG. She is trying to make sure that these men won’t be missed.
With her trap set, she brings them to her lair, which on the outside looks like a ramshackle flat, but on the inside is essentially a void. The Female begins to disrobe, and the men follow in suit, dropping their clothes as well (and, as a good indie flick, takes a unisex approach to full-frontal nudity, and like The Female is devoid of any sexiness.) They have been hypnotized to the point that they do not notice that they are sinking into the blackness of the room, never to be seen alive again.
Though these scenes are chilling, they don’t hold a candle to the devastating pivotal scene in the movie, where the Female goes to the rocky beach, to try and find another victim. The Female watches emotionlessly as a tragedy unfolds in front of her. I dare not completely spoil the moment, but the callousness of her character becomes alarming at this moment. Heroic deeds are met with, not admiration, but exploitation, and the presence of a crying child hammers this haunting scene home.
It isn’t immediately evident, but this has managed to shock The Female somehow. She continues with more of her sinister body snatching, but after capturing a couple more men, including one sadly disfigured man, her stoicism begins to crack. She lets the disfigured man go, abandoning her previous schemes, and heads out to the country.
Her partner searches for her, realizing that she has gone rogue, and is no longer harvesting victims. When she is on the run, she finds an emotional connection for the first time. She is unprepared as how to handle this, but she is met with true kindness for the first time. Unfortunately for her, it is revealed that her alien form has not made the full transition to becoming a human, in a most awkward way, and she panics and runs.
The tables have completely turned on her at this point, and where she for the bulk of the first two acts of the film is the aggressor, the controller, she is now on the run, and stripped of her confidence and power. The conclusion of the film is a complete reversal of the story and manages to make you empathize with The Female’s plight, despite the predatory evil that she showed for the bulk of the story.
No doubt about it, Under the Skin is a hard watch. It is emasculating for men to watch. It becomes a misogynistic horror show in the third act and everyone who will have witnessed the proceedings is certain to feel drained. I did. I was fairly late to the party for this film, and I can see why people admire it. Though to admire it does not mean that you will enjoy this film. The movie masterfully spends the majority of the plot showing a callous and manipulative alien plot, and just when you think the movie is going to make heel turned hero, it throws a wet blanket on you and hits you on the head with the proverbial shovel.
It ranks up there with The Road, The Lodge, and Eraserhead when it comes to depressing and nihilistic movies. Just like Scarlett’s The Female, herself, for a movie that lures you in with potential sex appeal, what you get in the end is an emotional meat grinder.
It is certainly a finely crafted film, and despite its bleakness is also a visually stunning film. The trap room scenes in particular are unforgettable. The beach scene will stay with you forever. And if his goal was to make you think, and to hollow you out emotionally, it worked. There is a ton of ambiguity in the film, and the motivations of the aliens is never really described, but as a story about an uncaring being slowly realizing what it means to be human right before becoming victim to the darkest of humanity, it is fascinating.
Jonathan Glazer, previously best known for his Jamiroquai and Radiohead videos, allowed his perfectionist streak to kick in. He hasn’t had many opportunities to make feature films since, and perhaps the ten year production time earned him a reputation of being a picky auteur who has a hard time hitting deadlines. It also did not help that the movie, despite Johansson’s star attraction only garnered $2 million, and was a box office dud. Certainly, the quality of the film should have earned him more production capital than it appears that he eventually got, but he has not had a feature film since Under the Skin was released in 2013, though according to indieWire, he will continue with bleak storytelling with a planned Holocaust movie which was due to start filming this year. Coronavirus may have thrown this plan into a holding pattern though.
Under the Skin is rated R, for nudity, sexual situations, and violence. Emotionally, this is not a movie for teenagers, and an argument could be made that this is close to NC-17 territory. The violence is personal and sexual, and the themes are highly adult, even if it is not a particularly gory movie. Another caution: you may need to watch this with subtitles on. Many of the characters speak in a thick Scottish brogue that is difficult to decipher sometimes.