Under the Skin (2013) – Directed by Jonathan Glazer – Starring Scarlett Johansson.
UNDER THE SKIN is the perfect palate cleanser for the coming summer movie season.
It’s far from a perfect movie, but the steadfast refusal of Director Jonathan Glazer to give us anything close to a quickened pace in SKIN forces you to become an active participant in the movie rather than the passive consumer encouraged by most summer movies. There is no whiz bang in SKIN. Heck, there’s very little of anything given to the audience – I don’t remember the last time I felt so self-conscious about eating popcorn and slurping Cherry Coke Zero in a darkened theater. It felt like the other four people in the theater could hear every crunch of corn and every rattle of ice cubes.
Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who drives around Scotland in a nondescript white van, picking up men to lure back to her apartment, where they walk into a tub of goo and have their skin sucked off.
The temptation for the men is having sex with a black-haired Scarlett Johansson, but no actual sex occurs. Johansson (characters in the film don’t have names) isn’t look for hot dudes or strong dudes or even healthy dudes, but guys that no one will miss. Once she’s brought them inside her house, she strips as she walks away from the men and the men strip as they walk towards her, seemingly unaware that they’re wading into a pool of black liquid with the viscosity of honey.
There are no quick answers in UNDER THE SKIN, which plays like an art house remake of Species. Other than Johansson, there’s no one here you’re likely to recognize. Instead of looking slick and moving fast, SKIN does it’s best to look normal and move ponderously. There isn’t a mystery here for the people in the film but there is for us, as Glazer slowly reveals more of the story as we go forward. It’s all Glazer, though – there’s no detective hot on Johansson’s case or distraught family member determined to find out what happened to their niece. In that, at least, Johansson’s character does a bang-up job selecting the right men to take home and preserve in liquid until they’re properly processed.
Glazer advances the narrative on two fronts: every time Johansson selects another victim, we get a greater sense of her and every time the man enters the black goo we get a greater sense of what happens to the men. Some of this is simply narrative sleight of hand; that we know what happens to the men in the liquid works largely as a MacGuffin. While the film suggests this is the story through its first half (and we see the men in the liquid and a very Kubrick-esque removal of blood down a chute that manages to nod to both 2001’s light tunnel and The Shining’s hallway of blood), the narrative shifts dramatically after Johansson’s alien picks up a man with neurofibromatosis.
Johansson solicits him into the van by offering a ride, and then when she doesn’t take him to the Tesco where he wants to do his shopping, the film has its most intimate scenes as Johansson lures him in. The man is obviously wary and nervous about being picked up by a beautiful woman, as he does his shopping in the middle of the night in order to avoid being looked at. Johansson’s questions to him about why he shops late and why people make fun of him are thrilling to watch because while it’s clearly a seduction, we now know it’s not a sexual seduction, but that of a hunter luring their prey into a false sense of security. That Johansson isn’t trying to be emotionally mean (acting as if there’s an actual question as to why he shops late), but physically so (to bring him to the goo), gives the very basic exchange a whole lot of charge.
“You have beautiful hands,” she says, focusing on a part of his body unaffected by his neurofibromatosis. She pushes him to confront his lack of intimacy and then pulls his hand to her face, and then allows him to touch her neck.
UNDER THE SKIN is primarily about isolation. Johansson selects her victims because they are isolated, he men return home with her to find a temporary reprieve from that isolation, and then Johansson’s character shifts course because the man with neurofibromatosis creates an actual connection with her. I love that SKIN offers no dialogue concerning this switch. Glazer shows us the now familiar set-up, but then we see the naked man running away, which is followed by Johansson running away, as well.
She has a helper alien who rides a motorcycle and cleans up any potential evidence left behind. In the film’s most fascinating scene, Johansson watches a target try to save another man, who was trying to save his wife from drowning in the ocean, who it appeared was trying to save their dog from drowning. After her target pulls the husband free, who then returns to the ocean to try again to save his wife, Johansson approaches his prone body and hits him in the head with a rock, and then drags him back to her van as the couple’s child wails nearby. Later, the biker alien comes by the beach to clean up the evidence, yet leaves the baby crying on the beach.
It’s a great sequence, creepy and completely in character.
Johansson runs away, eventually moving in with a nice guy she meets on a bus, but only after trying and failing to eat a piece of cake, a clear signal this movie is not about appetite, sexual or otherwise. The guy gives her food (which she doesn’t eat) and shelter, they go for a walk, and then they try to have sex. True to the film’s vision, they don’t have movie sex, but a slowed down version of actual sex. (It reminded me of the Jennifer Jason Leigh sex scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in its purposeful non-romanticized or sexualized depiction.) Johansson’s alien doesn’t fully know what to do, and her actions are somewhere between unresponsive and functional. The sex fails, and the scene ends with Johansson sitting on the edge of the bed, holding a lamp and peering into her own vagina.
She flees again, this time into the woods, where she ends up sleeping in a hiker’s cabin. A logger passes her in the woods and then follows her to the cabin, where he attempts to rape her. In the process, he rips a hole in her skin, and we finally see the alien in her true form, as she pulls off the Johansson exterior to reveal an obsidian body beneath. As she looks down at the still blinking Johansson shell, the logger douses her with gas, lights her on fire, and she burns to death.
I like how the film doesn’t answer many of the questions regarding the aliens because it’s not central to the plot. I’m being a bit self-serving in this, as I recently had this same battle with an editor who wanted everything in a submitted story to be obvious from page one what was happening. This editor didn’t like that I didn’t explain every little detail and my argument was that I answered everything that a reader would need, just not everything they might want.
I’m not suggesting this editor was an idiot, just that this person had a vision for my story I was not willing to execute, so we parted ways. These things happen, and while the refusal of SKIN to provide full details the audience might want, but doesn’t need, does not prove I was right and the editor was wrong, it was, at least, nice for me to see a story like SKIN end as it did.
In the end, UNDER THE SKIN does not rise to a level of greatness. While I appreciate having to do some of the work, the film simply moves too slow and says too little. I don’t mean the lack of actual words, either, but the journey of Johansson’s alien from dispassionate hunter to confused alien works only as process for me, and not resolution. SKIN is always interesting, but just because it’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s a great film. It is good, though, and a nice opening act for the summer.
Bring on the explosions.