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Under the Skin

D: Jonathan Glazer / 108m

Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan, Michael Moreland, Scott Dymond, Jeremy McWilliams

Set in Scotland, Glazer’s third feature (after Sexy Beast and Birth) is a loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel, focusing on an alien, “Laura” (Johansson) who lures men to their deaths so that her species has a food supply.  The first half of the movie mostly sees “Laura” driving around in a white van asking various men for directions; it’s repetitive stuff and while there is some novelty in the fact that many of the men seen in the film didn’t know they were being filmed in the first place, it serves to keep the movie trudging along at a worryingly slow pace.  When she does pick a man to take back to the strange house she “lives” in, the men are mesmerised before being lured to their deaths. These instances are compelling and chilling at the same time, with the men’s uncomprehending gazes adding to the effectiveness of each occasion.

Things do pick up though as “Laura” begins to experience human feelings.  This leads to her going AWOL and the movie becomes more dramatic.  As she interacts with more and more people, her purpose becomes forgotten, leaving her struggling to come to terms with the emotions she experiences. A brief liaison with a man leads to “Laura” hitching a ride that ends in violence, and an unexpected revelation. All the while, she is being pursued by a mysterious man on a motorbike (who may or may not be a fellow alien).

Under the Skin - scene

Under the Skin is a bold, stylised movie that piles ambiguity on top of ambiguity, keeps things mysterious throughout, adds a discomforting off-kilter – yet effective – soundtrack to the mix, and is largely experimental in its construction.  The end result is a movie that challenges its audience and pushes dramatic expectations.

And yet all these positives add up to an underwhelming whole.  The pace is languid rather than measured, and Johansson is required to do little more than look confused or be annoyingly mute.  The men she lures to their deaths are character-less cyphers – even the one with acromegaly – and as such the audience is hard-pressed to work up any sympathy for them.  The cinematography is all wintry greys and bleached-out greens and browns, and the rural locations – which should be breathtaking, these are the Scottish highlands after all – are made drab and dreary.  The ending feels forced as well, almost as if Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell couldn’t decide on a better outcome.

Glazer’s direction allows for little connection between “Laura” and the viewer, leaving the emotional arc she experiences one-sided and less than engaging. With a preference for long takes and static shots that add nothing to the mise-en-scène (but much to the running time), Glazer has created an empty, soulless movie that affects notions of humanity but fails to express any but the most basic emotions, and even then with only the most superficial of efforts.

There are other reasons why Under the Skin fails to convince: the absence of any momentum in the first half, its reliance on surrealist beats throughout that fail to add anything to the proceedings, and a script that seems afraid of saying anything literally.  Johansson is less than convincing at times, more so when she’s supposed to be confused about her burgeoning emotions; it’s an awkward performance, and while the character’s “evolution” should make for arresting (or at the least, intriguing) drama, Johansson doesn’t quite fulfil the role’s requirements.

Rating: 6/10 – an interesting failure that will no doubt do well with the “art” crowd, Under the Skin is well-intentioned but undermined by its approach; cold, elliptical and remote, it keeps the audience at too much of a remove.

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