I am thrilled that all I knew, going into Under the Skin, was that Scarlett Johansson plays a creepy woman who drives around Scotland in her van luring men to hitch a ride with her. That’s all I knew. What happened to the men afterwards, I didn’t know. And why she did all this, I had no idea either. I had avoided reviews to such a degree that I knew nothing, and even reviews that weren’t that spoiler-y gave a lot away.
It’s an art film, really. It’s a mood piece. It’s a repetitive and strange and dreamy collage. It doesn’t explain itself until almost the final frame, although there are clues dropped along the way. I imagine that Under the Skin is made for repeat viewings. It would seem a totally different film if I saw it again. I would know more. I would see more. I would understand more.
Jonathan Glazer directed. He is a major talent. Under the Skin had been in the working stage for about 10 years, and Scarlett Johansson had been attached to it for almost that long. Her stardom now is a much different thing than it was when she and Glazer first started talking about the film. Her stardom is now almost to supernova level. Her dedication and devotion to this totally strange project speaks very well of her. A lot of Under the Skin was filmed with hidden cameras, Scarlett Johansson’s character driving around and circulating, all on her own, with the crew hidden off somewhere far away. It was risky film-making, risky for Glazer, and risky for Johansson.
She is the only star in the film. The men she meets, the men she lures into her van, are all unknowns. Some of them don’t appear to be professional actors, although no less engaging and interesting because of that. Many times their Scottish accents are so thick that I could barely understand them, but the film provides no subtitles. It adds to the dreamy foreign feeling of the film.
Who is this woman? We see her driving around the streets, staring out the window at passersby. She asks men for directions. She engages them in conversation. “Do you live alone?” “Do you live near here?” It seems that it’s a disarming tactic. She knows she’s pretty, she knows that the men will want to be with her, and she uses that. At least that’s what it seems like, although by the end of the film that assumption is shattered.
Scarlett Johansson’s character has a partner-in-crime, a guy who zips around on a motorcycle, cleaning up her messes. Who is he? He never speaks. We never see his face. With no language explaining anything, it becomes clear that she is on some kind of mission. And it is clear, too, when she “goes rogue”. But all of this unfolds at a dreamy pace, repetitive, we see the same thing happen again and again and again. We get to know this woman’s serial killer routine. It is routine for her. We don’t know why she does it. We put all kinds of things onto her, we project. Or, I did. Is she sick of being drooled over? Is she sick of being “prey” to men so she turns the tables on them? All of these things are in the film, subtextually, thematically, without being spoken. There are deep fissures at work here, deep gaps in understanding, for us, AND for her. She has no life outside of her routine. Or no life that we see. We don’t see her eating, or sleeping. She always has on the same clothes. There is something … off … about her. She’s frightening. But more than that, she is foreign. “Other.” It’s a marvelous performance. It takes great patience and trust to pull off a performance like this, a performance that doesn’t explain itself.
The sound design of the film is superb. There are what sounds like drum beats going on, slow and insistent, throughout almost the whole entire film. It becomes like a heartbeat, it becomes the ritualistic soundtrack to what is an extremely ritualistic film.
Who is she? What does she want? Who is the guy on the motorcycle? What is that weird black-oily space where she takes her pick-ups? Where do the men go?
You’ll just have to see the film for yourself. It leaves you with more questions than answers, although the most important question is indeed answered at the very end. You’ve sensed it coming, you’ve sensed its presence, and when it is revealed there is a beautiful and calm recognition of how right it is, there is a feeling of, “Of course … of course … THAT’S what’s been going on … Yes, yes, I can see it now.” And you realize, suddenly, what you’ve actually been watching. You realize, suddenly, what story you’ve actually been in all along. And of course the clues have been staring you in the face from the get-go. The clue is in the title.
It’s a hell of a film. I can’t believe it’s playing in huge multiplexes. I saw it at an early-morning show at a giant multiplex in Union Square, and the theatre was packed. The audience was silent and engrossed. You could have heard a pin drop in that theatre. Surrounded by superhero movies and encroaching blockbusters, Under the Skin is a total anomaly, and is a beautiful reminder of the willingness of audiences to engage with challenging material.