Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
In the film adaptation of Michel Faber’s best-selling sci-fi novel, Scarlett Johansson plays an otherworldly being on the prowl on the streets of Scotland for unsuspecting young men who are only too eager to jump into a van with her. Once they are unable to escape her clutches, they dissolve into this abyss, seemingly consumed by Scarlett’s voracious alien appetite. It’s this routine of picking up and consuming men that populates the first half of the movie. As the story progresses, Scarlett’s character starts venturing outside of her routine of subsistence living. Sustenance is no longer primary, understanding what it means to be human suddenly intrigues her. While Johansson is literally a man-eating alien in this film, don’t let that premise fool you. Glazer’s approach to this story was anything but pedestrian. The English director, known for his eerie, off-kilter work that includes Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth, took nearly a decade to finish this project and the end result is quite stunning. This film takes a most unusual yet fascinating approach in attempting to answer man’s greatest riddle: what is the meaning of life? The answer may not be 42, but I assure you, it is just as profound.
While some may be perplexed by the film’s sparse dialogue or the deliberately abstract quality of some of its scenes, in many ways this was a celebration of the visual and visceral style of storytelling. Under the Skin isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience. Once you leave the theater, you’re suddenly bombarded with overwhelming emotions that you may find difficult to put into words. Your mind is racing, unsure of how to comprehend what you just saw, yet you remember acutely how you felt during certain scenes, with some moments staying with you even well after you’ve left the theater. This is precisely how effective Glazer was in luring viewers into this rather simple yet endlessly fascinating and eye-opening tale of discovery, both on a micro and macro level. On the one hand we have the tale of an outsider looking in, viewing people under a microscope and marveling at all the things that make us human. On the other side of the spectrum is a beautifully told story about becoming, self-awareness, and an almost terrifying understanding of human nature.
A story that was both complex and yet shockingly simple could only have been effective with the right actress at the center of it all, and Under the Skin is perhaps Johansson at her very best. She brought such great dimension to her character, showing impressive range with her acting that was subtle but impactful. There was a childlike innocence to her character that made it easy for audiences to sympathize and empathize with her, despite her mysterious, inexplicable origins. Viewers are never told of her purpose, and her behavior is never fully explained, yet we feel a kinship with her. The evolution of her character is really well done in this film. We see her grow from someone who initially seems to only exist for the sole purpose of self-preservation. She hunts these men for food, essentially, and nothing else. As the story progresses, however, she starts to explore outside the realm of merely surviving, forced by circumstances outside of her control. While driving around, she gets stuck in this impenetrable fog. The limited visibility hinders her quest of prowling for hitchhikers, so she pulls over and just starts aimlessly walking. She meets a man who is hospitable to her during this time of need. He takes her in and they start spending time with each other doing leisurely things, which comes as a surprise to her because she is so used to merely devouring men for food. She begins to see that humans don’t just live to eat, they live to enjoy the company of others. When the two of them share a moment and things get a little hot and heavy, another realization hits her: humans don’t just have sex for procreation; they can have sex for pleasure. At a restaurant, she orders a delectable slice of decadent cake. She stares at it, seemingly unsure of whether this even qualifies as food. There’s a very specific reason she orders dessert, and it’s because it’s usually a part of the meal that is largely unnecessary, and the one we normally eat for the sole reason that it is pleasurable and we are merely indulging our whims. She takes a bite and immediately spits it out. Perhaps she has grown so used to eating for survival that her palate isn’t suited for anything else, especially not leisurely dining. So Johansson’s whole character journey is about discovering that there is more to human life than merely existing. Survival is still primary, but how we cope with the brevity of life is through experiences such as enjoying the company of others and indulging in desires and not just needs.
In this day and age, audiences seem to have a lot of things handed to them when watching a movie - whether it’s information imparted through exhaustive, lengthy exposition, or a barrage of sound, special effects and other cinematic paraphernalia that assault the senses. Viewers have grown accustomed to stories that are wrapped up neatly in a little bow at the end of a film, or a character’s motivations explained at great length, that when presented with a tale that is so open to interpretation and so defiant in its challenging of traditional storytelling, it comes as a complete shock. Puzzlement was certainly what Glazer was going for, but not the kind that leaves viewers frustrated and shortchanged. His minimalistic approach to Under the Skin's story was intentional because he understood the value of withholding information from the audience. The result was refreshing, and actually quite pleasurable, because not having all the answers yet feeling a sense of understanding towards the story, without necessarily feeling accomplishment over having finished a film, is an interesting place to be for a viewer.
The sound design of this film was really the glue that held the film together, however. Mica Levi’s haunting score was a character all to itself. It was foreboding yet alluring, drawing the viewer in just like Scarlett lured her prey into her clutches. While the film already had such great atmosphere, it was the music that really served as the intellectual and emotional anchor for the audience. When words may not be enough (or completely necessary, as in the case of this film), music is more than ample as a substitute, because the marriage of sight and sound can be so much more dramatic than any verbal explanation.