Review: Under the Skin (2013)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #659


Number of Views: One
Release Date: 29 August 2013 (Telluride), 14 March 2014 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Arthouse
Country of Origin: United Kingdom, United States, Switzerland
Budget: $13,300,000
Box Office: $7,200,000
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Producers: James Wilson, Nick Wechsler
Screenplay: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer
Based on Under the Skin by Michel Faber
Special Effects: Kate McConnell, Tony Skinner,
Visual Effects: Huseyin Caner, Tom Debenham, Dominic Parker
Cinematography: Daniel Landin
Score: Mica Levi
Editing: Paul Watts
Studios: BFI, Film4
Distributors: StudioCanal, A24
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Michael Moreland, Adam Pearson, Paul Brannigan, Krystof Hádek, Dave Acton, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, Jessica Mance


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] John Lennon “Woman”

[2] Mica LeviLove”

[3] Mica Levi “Lipstick to Void”


I’ll never forget the very first time Scarlett Johansson graced me with her unmistakable presence. The stunning Danish-American actress actually made her film debut back in 1994 at the age of ten, but my first enlightenment came through Terry Zwigoff’s whip-smart black comedy, Ghost World, in 2001. Instantly I knew there was something special about this girl, something almost impossible to place but as clear as the pretty little nose on her face. Apparently I wasn’t alone either, as two years later, Sofia Coppola cast her alongside Bill Murray for Lost in Translation and her role as Charlotte ended up being the making of her. Words seem almost superfluous where Johansson is concerned as she can speak a thousand of them without ever once parting those cherry rosebud lips of hers and it’s impossible not to become hypnotized under the silent spell she casts so effortlessly.


As well as being widely regarded as one of the hottest women on the planet, she is also the highest-grossing actress of all time in North America, with her films making almost $5 billion thanks to her frequent forays into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, she refuses to become typecast and searches for roles that she believes will challenge both her and the audience. Going back to Lost in Translation momentarily, it almost felt like she was a visitor of our planet exploring this brave new word for the first time and I believe that performance proved the telling factor when landing her the part of The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited third full-length feature, Under The Skin. Based loosely on Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name, this film took almost decade to plan and a further four to shoot. Aside from its leading lady, virtually the entire cast hadn’t acted a lick previously and many of the conversations were unscripted, with hidden cameras employed to capture footage at its most naturalistic.


Think Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth and you’re in the right crash site as Under The Skin is all about viewing the human world through the perspective of a visiting alien, although it is there that any similarities end. Our main protagonist is a stranger in a strange land, learning on the fly as she attempts to “fit in” as best she can, while catering for her outlandish desires wherever possible.

Film Review Under the Skin

Much of her time is spent driving around the streets of Glasgow, Scotland in an old cargo van, with the intention of luring unsuspecting men back to her lair to do with as she will. Precious little is spelled out in a typically outré opening that calls to mind Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey but it doesn’t take long to suss out that she is a praying mantis of sorts and not to be taken lightly.


To be fair, she is actually rather congenial right up to the point where she leads her unsuspecting quarry through the blackened entranceway of her dilapidated personal burrow. Polite to the nth degree and softly spoken, she is intrigued to learn as much as she can about her short-term travel companions before moving on to the next street corner to repeat the process. This is clearly a learning curve for our otherworldly immigrant and each brief encounter teaches her something new about the subjects she is observing and the rules of the world they live in.


From the cacophonous din of heaving nightclubs to the delicate thunder of crashing waves on remote beaches, she meticulously collects her data, all the while searching for anyone likely to become captivated by her beguiling beauty. Trust me, a one night stand with this particular black widow is an experience you’ll not likely forget in a hurry.


You see, for as much as the daily Glasgow grind is captured at its most mundane, these instances punctuate long periods of inactivity with disquieting ease. The contrast couldn’t be more stark, as one by one, her blindsided fuck buddies follow her into the void and are tantalized until which time as they willingly submerge themselves in her liquid abyss and cease existence.


We’re not entirely sure whether or not these episodes are figurative or bona fide, perhaps an optical representation of how both parties view the act of seduction, and Glazer is disinterested in providing us any clear-cut solutions. Lest we not forget this film is called Under The Skin and he would much rather we drink it all in and take something away with us at the sign-off.

He's excited about his part in the film

He damn well succeeds too as the sense of discombobulation and creeping dread these scenes provoke is simply astonishing. There are three distinct reasons for this – Daniel Landin’s suitably surreal photography stifles; Mica Levi’s deeply unsettling score whispers its intent in a tongue impossible to decipher as though processing the data she is gathering; and Johansson ensures that we navigate this inky labyrinth with the same sense of morbid curiosity as those she culls. I shit you not, the screen positively gushes with consternation in these moments and the fact that we are free to make of them precisely what we wish makes each two-way transaction even more discomfiting to accommodate.


Johansson’s turn as our illegal alien is downright remarkable. While almost entirely devoid of emotion for the most part, her constant quiet calculation transports us directly into her personal head space. Thus it is fruitless not to find yourself sympathizing with her plight, particularly when she happens across one suitor blighted with neurofibromatosis and another who displays a generosity of spirit she has no idea whatsoever how to process.


As her journey wears on, she becomes more cognizant of the body she is “borrowing” to fit in with the locals and also the differences between her and those she has is tasked with examining. Perhaps most disarming of all is the note-perfect English rose accent she nails down, one of the most startlingly authentic from a non-native I have ever before come across.

Scarlett Johansson Under the Skin

However, Under The Skin is not without its imperfections. Some of the less eventful scenes are drawn out to almost excruciating levels, and while I fully understand this is meant to encapsulate the exhaustion of her search, it hardly makes for the most exhilarating of viewing material. It’s still pretty compulsive but ten minutes or so could have been trimmed away without compromising the end product. Indeed this could only have benefited Glazer’s atmospheric oddity.


Unashamedly art house it may be but it still has a duty to hold our attention when all is said and done and has Johansson solely to thank for not ultimately fumbling the baton. Be advised, this is destined to alienate as many as it enraptures and seldom in my forty-two years plus change have I happened across a film so divisive as this one. That said, rarely has a film been so open-handed when doing precisely what is stated on the tin.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Dread Factor: 4/5

For the Dread-Heads: The fact that our jaunt through the streets of Glasgow is such a leisurely one makes each visit to our femme fatale’s liquified prison all the more distressing. Certain nightmarish visuals are cunningly designed to prey on our innermost insecurities and may well remain with you long after the credits roll quietly away.


For the Pelt-Nuzzlers: Johansson’s first fully nude role should have been the subject of tremendous fervor and discussion, but eroticism pays second fiddle here to something far more natural and unforced. That said, I’d follow her into the void like a moth to the flame the very moment she flashed that timid smile.

scarlett_johansson-under_the_skin-hd-nude-05 scarlett-johansson-under-the-skin-2 scarlett-johansson-nude-photo-under-the-skin-6 560

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Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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1 Comment

  1. Scarjo as an alien. That is an interesting concept. This sounds a little like Starman except a darker version. I don’t know how I missed this one. It seems to me there wasn’t a lot of press with it.
    She certainly is a vision so good casting for a black widow character. Excellent review, Rich.

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