By R. David
Viewed April 11, 2014
I’ll concede that true visionary directors are in short supply these days. Those daring, inventive auteurs not afraid to go against the grain of what is considered traditionally acceptable in film are often dismissed as pompous, pretentious, or just plain weird; yet audiences overwhelmingly flock to the predictable, familiar, and mediocre time and time again. So, when a bold, distinctive voice submits a challenging and defiantly original film, I always wrestle with a great deal of regret when I can’t recommend it. Alas, pompous, pretentious and just plain weird is precisely what Jonathan Glazer’s (“Sexy Beast”) “Under the Skin” is.
A sensory experience rather than a mere narrative, “Under the Skin” means to be haunting and intriguing – and it is for a while – presenting an alien (Scarlett Johansson) who cruises the streets of Scotland in a cargo van, looking for men who will make suitable candidates to invite back to her abandoned country hobble where she joins them in stripping naked and watching as they dissolve in pool of black goo as they approach her, seemingly hypnotized by whatever spell she wields. Why is anybody’s guess. Her motivation is never made clear, nor is her origin or the extent of her powers. The film is essentially a series of these encounters, augmented by the addition of new characters and settings as the story, such as it is, meanders along.
Glazer’s intent here is obviously to present these events as some sort of fever dream for the audience to decipher for themselves and take away what they will. Kudos to any film that doesn’t insist on leading me by the hand to its point. But there should ultimately be a decipherable point, or at least a satisfying cohesion of themes and ideas, and a conclusion that offers some sort of revelation in lieu of closure. But “Under the Skin” makes the mistake of so many show-offy indies in which the filmmakers come up with a provocative premise, but either can’t or don’t bother to load it with anything resembling coherence. The movie is nonsensical and, worse, all too obviously proud of it. You can feel Glazer reveling in every infuriatingly impenetrable sequence he tosses up on screen without rhyme or reason. “Under the Skin” is moody and ambitious – haunting even (its droning soundtrack and the ominously languid encounters between Johansson and her victims create some real tension) – but there is no pay off to any of it. Sequences that have you on the edge of your seat end in frustratingly opaque impasses again and again.
For instance, there is little variation in the scenes where Johansson prowls for, selects, and ultimately consumes her prey, so why the film spends more than half of its running time repeating these encounters is anyone’s guess (Glazer employs cinema verite style to these sequences, supposedly filing real men on the street without their knowledge – that’s interesting I guess, but is neither here nor there in terms of effective, dramatic storytelling). Worse yet, in one of these episodes she meets a man with a severely disfigured face, and you’d think the physical difference of her subject would yield some narrative payoff (perhaps a change in her attitude or different reason for her engaging him); alas, this variation in character type yields nothing in terms of narrative variation. Similarly, there is disturbing sequence on a beach that seems to be accidentally spliced into this movie from a completely different film.
Again, much of this will be interpreted differently by the individual. One man’s boring repetition or pointless sequence is another’s in-depth commentary, or perhaps at least their fascinating enigma. Those who favor style over substance and the bizarre over the intelligible will no doubt be elated with “Under the Skin”. It is moody and visually stunning to be sure. The sight of a fully-nude Johansson doesn’t hurt either, though to diminish her performance here by solely focusing on her nudity would be unfair. It’s a coldly fascinating turn that you don’t fully appreciate until you think back on the film and realize how instrumental it was in pulling you through the muddled story and conveying the few emotions and revelations the film does manage. But “Under the Skin” ultimately feels like so much ado about nothing. In the final act, there are character and plot developments that come completely out of left field. It’s hard to make sense of them, and even harder to care about them.
“Under the Skin” is an intriguing and sometimes stunning mess. But it’s a mess just the same. Its slack pace and pompously artistic air don’t help matters. Maybe if it had a certain manic energy, or even a consistent tone, it would be easier to appreciate for its visceral thrills alone. But the movie wants you to ignore its narrative structure despite being frustratingly beholden to it. The film simply can’t have it both ways. Despite (or because of) “Under the Skin’s” considerable attributes, the result is unsatisfying and disappointing.
2 Stars (Out of 4)