Under the Skin (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Under the Skin (2014)

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She walks the streets and drives her van, chats a friendly game, and takes men out for drives that they never return from.  Who is she, and what is she doing?  Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast) returns after a decade of absence from directing feature-films with the science-fiction horror film Under the Skin, starring Scarlett Johansson.

Come to meUnder the Skin is seduction without the hint of release.  The universe is one where being human is to endure the potential for pleasure yet finding nothing but another flesh covered machine driven by the hope and ending in darkness.  There is nothing to reach for in the light, because whatever comes out does not have our best interests in mind, and the thrill of discovery is beaten down by the reality that we are just a collection of nutrients waiting to decay or for someone to have use of us.

For all its trappings in science-fiction, Under the Skin is a horror film about what it means to be human.  Jonathan Glazer, who can take as much time as he needs between feature-films if the results are this good, is not interested in taking the optimism or drama of space operas to make this film.  Instead, he takes seriously the long-running question of what this world would be like to aliens experiencing it for the very first time, and what sense they could make of what, to us, feels like routine existence.

Glazer's style is to dip us gently into that chaos with a character who can only gradually understand the uncertainty of life that we experience on a day-to-day basis.  Scarlett Johansson's stalker is depersonalized at first, filmed in a harsh white room as she strips a corpse of its clothing, then is watched from behind as she walks throughout the city.  It's only when she gets behind the wheel of her van that we start to see her as she views herself.  In the streets she's just another person with no story going about her way, but when she is driving and chatting up strangers she is a harvester with a deceiving smile.

Under the Skin takes potentially exploitative moments and twists them into subversive moments of pleasure denied.

Under the Skin takes potentially exploitative moments and twists them into subversive moments of pleasure denied.

This technique conveys a sense of mystery about the subject, it's how Glazer gradually unravels this that's horrifying, and he does this primarily through the sound design.  Everything is indistinct and conveys little information at first.  It's like listening to a channel of white noise where the constant hiss of the background is instead replaced with endless chatter that says nothing and the comings and goings of various shoppers and occupants of this planet.  The stalker's perception on humans only changes as her reception to our words changes, as understanding develops so does empathy, and by the time the dialogue is distinct from the chatter the stalker has learned that some of us might not deserve to be harvested - but not before finding out that same concerned tone and empathy can be used for abuse as well.

Where the sound is indistinct and gradually sharp the visuals present the world in, quite literally, a black and white way before mucking about in the ground.  The world is terrifyingly clear as the stalker's purpose remains unsullied.  As she tracks her victims the world she retreats to is a void of vicious white or a deep black.  Here she is what she is and her purpose is simple.  But, much like as the sound comes into focus with her continued evolution into her human body, as she becomes more connected with those around her the visuals take on more traps to ensnare her.  As the film comes to a close the mud that she eventually finds herself in and the dense foliage of trees around her are traps to ensnare and imprison her.  The human life she comes to accept as her own comes with it the same fate for the rest of us, where anything we encounter can be used to end our means of perception.

The narrative drifts in so sparingly that individual scenes could play as their own excellent short films.

The narrative drifts in so sparingly that each scene could play as their own excellent short films.

The technique is so overwhelming that I have to take a step back and focus on just how unsettling this all is.  The weakness and arbitrary experience of human life never seemed so fragile than in these moments of descent.  Under the Skin undermines sex as a connecting point between humans, but also language, smell, and, in one disturbing scene, taste.  No sensation provides the normal experience we take for granted and as the stalker becomes one of us all she seems to be able to sense is the cold finality of it all.  Glazer thrusts us so completely into this harsh realization that the film may be too much for some to bear, especially as the droning soundtrack gives way to a litany of indistinct voices and the stalker's body begins to fail.

It's a draining experience, one made more unsettling by Johansson's performance.  This is a masterful bit of casting, getting a performer who has made a career of roles where her smoky voice provides an air of mystery, and sticking her into a role that requires almost total silence and complete body control.  She performs beyond any expectation anyone should have and when her total disorientation at her new existence begins to overwhelm her she owns scenes of frustration and betrayal at he imperfect form.  With the visuals comes gradual complication and weight, with sound clarity and lies, and with Johansson's performance a sense of purpose giving way to clouded despair.

I don't expect Under the Skin to play well for many viewers.  It's pessimistic to the core and shows evolution as less a means of success and more about how greater understanding comes with it an increased wish to end all feeling.  For those who are able to endure it, Glazer and Johansson have crafted one of the brutal, unflinching, great films of 2014.

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Tail - Under the SkinUnder the Skin (2014)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer.
Screenplay written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell.
Starring Scarlett Johansson.

Posted by Andrew

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