The name Jonathan Glazer may not mean much to 95% of the viewing public and to be honest, you can’t blame them. With two independent features, a few shorts, and a slew of commercials under his belt (including the incredible Sony Bravia “Paint” advert), he’s less than a household name. Most people know his music videos, including Radiohead’s “Karma Police”, Jamiroquai’s spellbinding “Virtual Insanity” and the unreal “Rabbit In Your Headlights” from English electronica stalwarts UNKLE. Spend a half hour YouTubing his work, and one thing will be apparent. The man is an expert in shot framing, creating visual landscapes and being just plain inventive.
In his adaptation of Michel Faber’s sci-fi novel Under the Skin, Glazer puts all his skills to the test, creating a dark, unsettling and magnetic story of lust and domination.
A far cry from her work in the Avengers, Scarlett Johansson plays a seemingly quiet woman worming her way through the Scottish countryside. She’s on the hunt for lonely, vapid men with no worldly connections. Using her feminine charms, she entices them to her lair, much like a spider entrances a fly, and does…things to them. I’ll keep the result of her conquests spoiler free but after an unsettling encounter and a brush with an older man’s genuine affections, she feels alien emotions and, for the first time, the black widow runs the risk of getting caught in her own web.
As the nearly mute devilish debutante, Johansson is well cast, bringing a natural sexual energy and steely gaze to a difficult role. Much of her work is silent yet focused with each movement carefully blocked and plotted. At times she comes off wooden, but once the film’s secrets present themselves, it all makes sense in context. This is a slow almost slug paced movie that requires real attention to appreciate. Despite getting sucked in, even I had a few, “come on, get going” moments, especially when Glazer lets his camera linger so long, you’d think he took a bathroom break while shooting. There was many a sigh and squirm in the audience. Nothing comes easy but it is rewarding for those willing to stick it out.
That is, if you can stomach it. Treading a fine line between graphic and grotesque, Under the Skin pulls no punches in how it handles the story’s eroticism. If you have any reservations against nudity, shots of “male arousal” and truly creepy imagery, see something else. Those who don’t mind a good squirm will be treated to one of the most visually distinctive features of 2014. Under the Skin’s most uncomfortable moments are often the most stunning, giving real purpose to the often off-putting subject matter.
Glazer also hits a homerun with excellent sound design. With about two pages of dialogue in the entire movie, the effects and score are crucial to the storytelling. A prime example is the techno-synth drum thump of Johansson’s seduction. When the piece is played again in a different situation, the themes come crashing in, creating a great “Ah ha” moment. The supporting cast, which is limited to three main characters, all pull their weight. There’s even a bit of comedy thrown in, mostly at the expense of the hapless victims. Their lame pick up techniques and charming (yet difficult to understand) Scottish accents provide a much needed slash of light to break up the darkness.
With arresting visuals, heart stopping tension and a complex theme wrapped in a simple parable, Under the Skin is a subtle spectacle. Although it’s paced like a glacier and has plenty of gut wrenching, uncomfortable moments, Glazer’s third feature is a stark, thought provoking affair. A perfect mid-April offering for those looking for something meatier before the bombast of blockbuster season invades the cinema.
Score – 8.5 out of 10
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jersey born and New York bred, Bill Tucker is a writer of short fiction, film reviews and articles across a variety of genres and media. He currently writes a regular movie column entitled “Behind the Cinematic Curtain” for Revolt Daily, contributes to a fashion blog for http://www.pop-market.com and has a number of short stories in various stages of publication. When not writing, he works as an IT Trainer for a fashion software company. He currently hangs his hat in Austin, Texas. Check out more of his work at http://www.thesurrealityproject.com.