On social media, I can be a bit of a jerk when it comes to film writers freaking out and overpraising a film. I think it’s great to get that surge of adrenaline that a writer gets when they see something that totally rings their bell, because that happens so rarely the longer your career goes on. But still, we owe it to the readers to calmly explain why a movie is amazing without falling all over each other with praise.
That’s the issue I’ve been grappling with all week as I try to piece together my review for “Under the Skin,” the latest film by director Jonathan Glazer. I’ve tried to tone it down a bit but the truth is, “Under the Skin” is just such a cool movie that is so different, I’m just glad it exists and I urge you to try and see it in a theater. See, that was calm and reasonable, right? Just wait.
As Jonathan Glazer’s brilliant, bizarre, atmospheric and creepy film “Under the Skin” slowly oozes it’s way into theaters, you’re going to be reading a lot about what a complicated and tricky film it is. Don’t be fooled. While Glazer’s latest is indeed a totally trippy experience, you only need to relax and let the film glide over and pull you in to finally realize it’s a pretty straight forward science-fiction story told in a completely unique way. Kind of like last years “Upstream Color” which, once you stepped back, it became easier to see what the film was really about.
Scarlett Johansson stars as Laura (although I never heard her called that), an alien humanoid that feasts on men. (Note: that could be construed as a spoiler but the opening scene pretty much lays that out.) How she ensnares them is intriguing to the point of being considered film noir and how she devours them is one of the coolest things you’re going to see in a film this year, if not ever. To go into it would be to spoil a unique vision that Glazer seamlessly crafts using a combination of CGI and practical effects coupled with the use of non-actors which give the scenes a reality that’s even weirder than the scenes themselves.
These scenes are eerie because of how unique and scary they are, but also because you’re attracted to Johansson (who’s fully nude), and what she’s doing is freaky. Then the score for the film (which is brilliant, more on that later) comes in and it’s guaranteed to make your skin crawl. But “Under the Skin” isn’t a jump-scare kind of film, it’s a slow burn told using real people as actors in and around Scarlett and Scotland who are sucked into Laura’s black vortex. It’s this documentary approach, coupled with intriguing sci-fi, that makes the film so interesting. Well, plus the directing, acting and score.
As I said, I’m always cautious when it comes to hyperbole but I cannot review this film without talking about it’s brilliance. As in: it’s brilliant. For starters, Glazer has found a nice extension for his cold and detached look at “who we are,” an area he mined in his genius 2004 film “Birth” and also somewhat in his debut “Sexy Beast.” Evidently Glazer has been working on this film since 2004 and only recently found the cinematic tools to make the film a reality. Yet what he needed wasn’t a special effect, he needed a camera that could secretly film Johansson in disguise as she walks and drives the streets of Glasgow in a wig and outfit that makes her blend in.
Well, sort of. The issue with that is, unless she’s wearing a mask or some kind of insane prosthetic nose, Johansson is flat out gorgeous and attracts attention. Yet her looks and celebrity serve to add a layer of repulsion and attraction to the viewer, and it’s a strong layer that makes this visually stunning film go deeper.
I should note that I’m not a really big fan of Scarlett Johansson as an actress. The camera loves her, and that’s more than good enough for most of her roles, which I find hit and miss. Of late, she’s been crushing her career trajectory with smart projects, and “Under the Skin” ranks high in that regard. She starts off as a blank slate, imbued with enough tools to seduce lonely men as her only trait. But that’s all she needs because her character “lives” to eat and that’s her only purpose in “life.” When she tries to break free of that mold, she is quickly put back into her place, but not before a struggle that echoes the Greek mythology story of Narcissus takes place. Or is it a gender reversed Pinocchio? I’m not sure. The point is, once “Laura” tries to reconcile who (or, what) she is, the wheels fall off in her almost ironically one-dimensional life.
While Glazer is the cinematic star and Johansson the on-screen one, the third person in this trifecta of awesome is composer Mica Levi and her score for the film. In fact, Johansson’s performance is so stoic and weird, it’s really the score and that adds flavor to her role and, without Levi, I’m not sure this whole film comes together. Using shrill as well as droning noises to equal effect, Levi sonically paints a landscape that makes you almost immediately realize just how nefarious and foul our lead character’s intentions are. Since Johansson and Glazer elect to use detached “fly-on-the-wall” stylings and an almost blank performance, it’s up to Levi to add the visceral “creep” factor, and what she does here absolutely must be remembered come awards season. It’s truly an amazing, unsettling score.
“Under the Skin” Is just a real cinematic treat. Glazer continues to bat 1.000, which is both good and bad. Good because he makes amazing films, bad because he’s only made three in 14 years. Here’s hoping the delay between “Birth” and “Under the Skin” was indeed due to the technical nature of the latter. We need more Jonathan Glazer, and you need to be sure to see “Under the Skin” in a theater, preferably with great sound.