UNDER THE SKIN (2013, directed by Jonathan Glazer, 108 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC There’s a moment early on in Jonathan Glazer’s hallucinatory new film Under the Skin where Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed character plucks an ant from a lifeless body and inspects it indifferently. The fleeting scene sets the tone for this grimly hypnotizing little mood piece, as it invites us to study the young woman as she moves through her surreal rituals like a bug collecting its prey. Long on process and short on explanation, Under the Skin pulls us into its spell by eschewing formula and refusing to wrap up its mysteries in a tidy package.
Director Jonathan Glazer has shown wonderful visual acuity in the pair of features proceeding this, 2000′s gangster study Sexy Beast and 2004′s reincarnation mystery Birth, but neither of them prepared us for the abstract style he has summoned for his latest film. Much of the action is shown in long takes from a medium distance that refuse to underline details of narrative or metaphoric importance. In the overly-literal style that dominates the film world of sci-fi (just one of the genres with which Under the Skin flirts) the film’s story stands resistant to any definitive meaning. It delivers its images from a detached perspective that gives it a similar jolt to classic Russian cinema. The film demands you lean forward and study each scene for detail and in general, art that requests more out of its viewer tends to reward much more deeply as well.
Much of the film is spent following The Woman as she wanders around the Scottish countryside looking for men to seduce. Johansson doesn’t look like a movie starlet in these scenes, she is instead dressed in some slightly ratty working class party clothes and her hair is dyed dark. One-by-one, she picks up hitchhikers in her van until she finds one that will follow her somewhere private. Once she and these poor horny bastards arrive to that darkened place the bottom drops out and they are trapped like a disbelieving fly in a web. Johansson is sometimes criticized for being unemotive but her restraint is useful in this role, where she often acts in scenes with non-actors who bring a discomforting intimacy to their ultimate demise. Glazer gives these scenes a wildly abstract design, at times collapsing into a vividly blurry light show that has drawn comparisons to the otherworldly ending of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It goes from this surreal pageantry back to the much more earthly spectacle of Scarlett Johansson traversing across the screen naked. It is enough to give admirers in the audience troubling sensation that they may be the next one to get caught in her web.
And onward it goes, much like a nature documentary as we learn about the habits of the insect-like creature. The details are so spare I’d hate to give away any more of the film’s secrets. In fact here is a film poorly-serviced by the nature of modern film criticism, it is easy to divulge too much about the film’s action and tip the hand on what little narrative the film holds. I will say the slow development of emotions in The Woman tilts towards mawkishness just a hair too much, like a spider wiping a tear over a fly’s pleas for mercy. Johansson is as enthralling as a force of nature here and one thing nature is not is sentimental. That’s no reason not to run to your theater (a far superior choice than your “On-Demand” button for a visual tour de force like this) because Under the Skin shows us an eerie look at nature unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.