Under The Skin (2013)

Part of me wanted to react to this movie with a simple summation, "This movie showcases why I have a tendency to feel such anger towards men." But that is a silly simplification in the midst of all its potential. I'm still struggling with it, which might be a good thing in the long run. UNDER THE SKIN is almost like the “Kid A” of cinema. I remember when I first heard Radiohead's “Kid A,” I was perplexed rather than intoxicated by it. Back in those days, when I was excited by a new band's album, I would make the first listen a solitary experience where my all of my attention was directed at the sounds coming through my headphones. Music listening was never a passive experience back then, since I almost wanted to recreate what it was like going to the cinema... to be taken away by what I was seeing and feeling without distraction. Music and film are completely different beasts, but honestly when I first heard the title track of “Kid A,” I was a little bit angry and baffled at the lack of melody and the identifiable elements of pop songwriting that I was drawn to. This was not the same band that made “The Bends,” which was relatively disappointing. It felt indulgent and unfocused, like a band struggling to find its voice despite being completely original and interesting. I wouldn't use the word pretentious, but I felt that many songs on the record were unclear in what it was trying to accomplish or maybe I just “didn’t get it.” However, never once did I feel like turning it off, but I leaned in closer hoping to grasp each nuance rather than feel alienated by it. I wanted more songs like “How to Disappear Completely” rather than “Treefingers” or “National Anthem.” Then as time went on, I listened to it more, and felt more in tune with the unique experience that one of my favorite bands had created. I am hoping the same holds true for Jonathan Grazer's wholly original UNDER THE SKIN, which is a film unlike any other, but I have no grasp on its intent nor did I find myself in love with it upon a first viewing. And yet I demand any fan of film to rush out to the theater immediately because it is truly the work of an artist that is absolutely worth your time and attention.

Scarlett Johansson stars as an alien seductress that preys on lonely men late at night. That’s mainly all you need to know in terms of plot setup and that’s mainly what the film presents at the outset. My first framework that this film seemed to emulate was not Kubrick or an artful SPECIES, but more akin to THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH. But there is more of a horror element lurking within, mostly due to the score and a moment that genuinely shocked me. When alien predator does pick someone up, she brings them to a seemingly abandoned house, lures them in, backing away as she begins to remove her clothing. The men do the same, once they are completely naked, they begin to sink into a black fluid, once submerged, the woman picks up her clothing and heads back out into the night. A sequence involving a couple of victims as they touch, really struck me as one of the more unnerving moments I’ve seen in a movie in quite a while. I finally felt the kind of horror I’ve been hoping for when watching an actual horror film. But obviously, this is more in the sci-fi realm, but again, manifests a world that is almost indescribable. Glazer has such confidence behind his compositions, lingering both on screen and eventually in the minds of the audience. This is not a movie about giving you answers or exposition, or even telling you what it is about. It is the sort of movie that wants you to ask questions, or it may be the sort of movie that just wants to be, an experience, if you will. An atmospheric, creepy, threatening, alien that creeps into you and you’re swallowed whole by it. What happened to the victims in this film, almost happened to me intellectually therefore I was seduced and destroyed.

I did not love it the way a lot of my film-loving peers and colleagues seem to. On a technical level, I appreciated and admired the film more than I felt connected to it. This isn’t always necessary for every movie-going experience I realize. But I felt a sense of detachment that wasn’t always appealing, and by the very end, I wished I had a strong emotional response or even comprehended what the film was trying to convey to me. It was almost a replicated experience to the one I had with ENEMY, a movie that I loved as a dark, visual mystery. Both could simply be about a sort-of sexual psychosis depleting its characters of humanity, but UNDER THE SKIN takes an interesting turn after one particular encounter. The problem is, the final act that follows is not as visually daring or intoxicating as what came before. The darkness becomes lifted and I wasn’t entirely sure what the film wanted to convey by going in an almost STARMAN-like fashion, only with hardly any dialogue. There’s even a scene involving tasting a desert that is subverted from Jeff Bridges’ ecstatic reaction in STARMAN. This is not to say that I wasn’t enthralled by nearly everything, but the sense of awe I felt for about an hour, suddenly evaporated even if it seems somewhat justified. Just wasn’t sure if I am truly on board with the movie as a whole, but I absolutely adored the pieces of this puzzle. Certain scenes and images that I wouldn’t dream of giving away, will haunt you indefinitely and you’ll know what they are. I cannot deny the brilliance and ingenuity to implement visual storytelling of the highest caliber. Clearly there is commentary about objectification, femininity, sexuality, gender politics, identity loss, and a whole slew of existential ideas that normally I hone in on immediately. Perhaps my brain could not catch on to the film’s wavelength or overall thesis, which might be my fault and not the fault of the film. What’s a bit off-putting is where the story decides to go because it becomes more of a parable about humanity than the more oblique, artful insight into alienation and the need to physically connect. A moment involving an unexpected victim of sorts is also one of the few with audible dialogue shared between two people. This is one of the more emotional moments that also serves as the turning point. What follows left me asking questions rather than getting lost in feeling, which is great on level, disappointing on the other. Glazer contrives a few sequences that almost feel like a litmus test for empathy of the alien, and through these she is revealed more as a pawn than a predator. Which is not quite as compelling for me and obviously the final moment truly angered me, both in what takes place on-screen, and from a storytelling standpoint.

But I have no doubt that others might inform me of what Glazer is trying to convey to its audience through this challenging, beautiful, terrifying piece of filmmaking. I just wish I understood it at the onset or enjoyed the latter portion of the story. Maybe the thesis and ideas revolve around a comment on the male mind, that these pervy, dehumanized victims see no problem in entering what looks like an abandoned house and take no notice when going into a seemingly endless black room simply because there is sex waiting. (I am reminded of what Valerie Solanas said in her SCUM Manifesto: “Men will swim through a river of snot, wade nostril-deep through a mile of vomit, if he thinks there'll be a friendly pussy awaiting him.”). I will say that I can’t make heads or tails of choosing to open the story and close the film with such direct, haunting imagery (involving a single tear and an act of violence) because it might be difficult to take a feminist stance. Yet, I am compelled to rewatch this again and again for years to come. This is not Kubrickian (outside for maybe the very opening), but rather a true work of art from an extremely accomplished, assured director. UNDER THE SKIN is also not a film I can declare as a masterpiece due to my reservations, but I am not sure if I will see anything more horrifying and haunting and original in a theater for quite some time.  B

James Laczkowski