Sunday, April 6, 2014

Review: Under the Skin

Image courtesy of A24.
It's a sentiment I am rarely able to express, but I can say without much doubt that Jonathan Glazer's absorbing, haunting and flat-out strange "Under the Skin" is surely unlike any other film you've seen before.

Sure, some of its themes - should we agree on them, that is - resemble everything from Nicolas Roeg's "The Man Who Fell to Earth" to Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire" and the mesmerizingly confounding opening sequence, perhaps, pays homage to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." And yet, there's really no other film to which I can say this one is similar.

This should come as no surprise as Glazer's previous two features included a gangster movie - "Sexy Beast" - quite unlike any you'd probably come across and the bizarrely moving "Birth," the 2004 film in which a young boy tells Nicole Kidman that he is the reincarnation - or something to that effect - of her dead husband.

In "Under the Skin," Scarlett Johansson - in a performance quite unlike any other in her body of work - plays a nameless being that we can assume is not from this planet who drives around Scotland, picks up men who believe they are heading back to her place to have sex and then, well, let's just say these men - or their flesh, bodies, something - serve some higher purpose unknown to us. Much like David Bowie's water-seeking alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth," Johansson's extraterrestrial figure is serving some sort of mission here on Earth.

The film kicks off with an obelisk-type structure and a shot of outer space. We then hear words being formed as if for the first time and the opening of an eye. Our alien is being created - or something along those lines. Once on our planet, she takes the figure of a woman and picks out some clothes, which include tight-fitting jeans and a fur coat. She commences to drive her van around, picking up Scottish men who follow her back to her creepy shack in the middle of nowhere, strip naked and end up in a pool of liquid, in which they are unable to move. During one particularly imaginative - and horrific - sequence, one of the men in the pool of goo finds out what happens once you have been submerged in it too long.

Johansson's alien observes all things without feeling human emotions. This is most strikingly observed as she watches a tragic scene unfold on a beach where a young child is drowning. A baby left alone on the sand will most likely unnerve you long after the movie is over.

But slowly, this extraterrestrial begins to seemingly long for the experience of being human or, at least, sympathize with it. This occurs first after she picks up a horribly deformed man who, when realizing that she intends to take him back to her place, pinches himself and asks if he is dreaming. Later, the alien is assisted by a man on a bus who senses that she is in some sort of trouble.

But just as our otherworldly being witnesses the good in mankind, she also comes into contact with its potential for evil during an ironically horrifying sequence toward the film's end in which the alien, a sexual predator by all accounts, meets the wrong man.

"Under the Skin" is a strange, but unforgettable, movie. Its visual style, narrative rhythms, use of dialogue or the lack thereof, sound and eerie score, modest but striking visual effects and overall tone make for a hypnotic, creepy and occasionally even moving picture. This is certainly not a movie for everybody - but the adventurous, who crave offbeat and unique moviegoing experiences, should drop what they are doing and seek this out. Glazer's dreamy - or is it nightmarish - ode to the human experience, but from an outsider's perspective, is one of the year's must-see movies.

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