Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Joe Szula, Kryštof Hádek, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland, Dave Acton, Jessica Mance
Running Time: 108 minutes
An alien disguised as a buxom, red lipstick wearing femme-fatale drives around Glasgow in a white van, picking up unsuspecting men and luring them back to her lair, where they meet a sticky end. Another alien on a motorcycle tears around cleaning up after her and hiding all the evidence. I know how it looks. But whilst the premise for UNDER THE SKIN might sound like a collaboration between Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, it’s actually anything but. Instead Jonathan Glazer has created a film that’s harrowing, freaky and visually stunning – with some bleak messages about humanity.
Scarlett Johansson plays the alien with a kind of slack-jawed emptiness. With her blank expression she’s like an automaton that only starts up in its attempts to interact with the locals (only men) and snag another victim. In these scenes she uncannily comes to life, bombarding Glaswegians on the road-side with chat up lines/questions. Of course, it’s all an act. As soon as she’s got them in her van it’s a one-way street that ends in alien HQ (a grimy looking house) where a chilling and bizarre dance between predator and victim ensues, with surely the most disturbing music ever composed.
But you’ll be disappointed if you’re expecting sex, blood and guts. Unlike Julia in HELLRAISER, who tempts men back with the promise of kookiness, straight into the murderous hands of Frank (newly escaped from a hell dimension sans skin) the alien coaxes each lusty male into, well, I’m not really sure. It looks a bit like the oil slick that killed Tasha Yar in Star Trek TNG. There they remain, like the souls in Dante’s ninth circle of hell.
However, I’m not really sure I feel that sorry for any of them. The most chilling thing about UNDER THE SKIN is how it disorientates you – forcing you to see things from the outsider’s perspective. Glazer’s filmmaking technique adds to this bewilderment as visually stunning and erotically charged scenes contrast with grainy, gritty documentary-esque footage of Glasgow. God it looks depressing – all marks of weakness, marks of woe.
Glazer famously used actual “real” people for many of these scenes, plonking Johansson down in her van and getting her to ensnare young Glaswegian men. I can only imagine the confused faces of some international audiences in the opening ten minutes, when we hear some incredibly broad accents. Some scenes even have a Kubrick flavour to them – the opening scene could’ve been taken from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (in fact surely it’s a homage).
This is a bleak movie with a nihilistic view of the world. Everything is reduced to sexual exchange, while the human race, on the whole, is shown to be cruel and ugly – as cruel and ugly as the alien’s horrific actions (and inactions) on a beach where a young family meet a harsh fate. But this event sparks a glimmer of humanity in the alien…as does her encounter with a man with neurofibromatosis. In another depressing indictment against Mankind, he explains in a quiet voice how he has no friends.
Later events move into the Scottish countryside, with its strangely haunting but beautiful vistas. It’s here that the alien does a lot of soul searching and has a sad attempt at eating a slice of chocolate cake (aliens can’t eat human food, only humans). We know it’s not going to end well, and it doesn’t, with a brutal and unpleasant finale which leaves a bitter taste.
UNDER THE SKIN isn’t an easy watch. It’s incredibly dark (both in themes and mise-en-scene) and constantly challenges the audience. Film meaning relies on visuals and sound more than anything else (the script is minimal), and the edit means we often have to make a rapid number of jumps to follow the narrative. Mica Levi’s score is absolutely terrifying in its strangeness – all clanging noises, repetitive drum beats and weird synths. In fact it reminded me of something Kubrick favourites György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki might have come up with.
But this is all what makes UNDER THE SKIN such a success. This really is an astounding film, stark, disturbing and beautiful. But be warned, it’ll leave you with many, many questions.
[usr=5] UNDER THE SKIN is out on DVD and Blu-ray today.