Under the Skin chills, burns, itches and scratches in equal measure. It devours you. It’s a 108-minute waking nightmare that leaves you mouthing a silent, sweaty “fucking hell” for hours afterwards. Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film is, and I don’t use this term lightly, Kubrickian. Actually, sod that. Some set pieces are better than anything in The Shining or, and this is real blasphemy, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Erm, yeah right,” I hear you mutter, your eyes slowly rolling out of their sockets. “That one where Scarlett Johansson’s a naked alien-thing and drives around Scotland in a white van? It looks a bit naff, mate.” Au contraire.
The film centres on a nameless, almost silent woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she lures lone men back to her Glasgow lair. Once there, the “overly excited” victims are absorbed into a spandex-like abyss in the floor and, very gradually, become a frail mass of loose skin. In the end, they pop. Yes, pop. Their skin then floats, rather beautifully, to the bottom of the pit. Needless to say, it’s a barrel of laughs.
Although never explicitly explained, the woman belongs to a group of aliens who harvest human skin for… well, I don’t know. And that’s part of the beauty of Under the Skin. The audience aren’t pandered to or coddled – they’re merely eyewitnesses to a terrifying cacophony of flesh, sex, violence, loneliness and good ol’ Scottish rain.
First, the acting. It is, perhaps with the exception of the evergreen Lost in Translation, Scarlett Johansson’s best performance. She is stunningly good, with every minute twitch and raised eyebrow heightening the sense of dread. At the beginning, her alien is every bit as frightening as Alien‘s Xenomorph – an “Uncanny Valley” siren ensnaring unsuspecting, tartan-clad prey (many of whom were just members of the public, caught by the director’s hidden camera).
However, Johansson’s real triumph comes towards the end of the film when her character goes AWOL from her motorbike-riding master and attempts to live like a human. These scenes are both heartbreakingly sad (for example, her attempt to eat and, later, have sex) and toe-curlingly aggressive (the final shocking minutes of the film highlight the darkest parts of human nature).
That said, at least 66.67% of the film’s success (okay, let’s round that up to 70%) is down to its soundtrack. Mica Levi’s score is startling – full of dissonant strings, low voices and awkward pauses. I recently listened to it while walking home from work… in the dark. After about a minute, I was looking over my shoulder. After ninety seconds, I wanted to break into a run. It is cruelly, captivatingly and unsparingly creepy.
Under the Skin shouldn’t be watched on a rainy Sunday afternoon, nice cup of tea in hand and dog by the fire. It’s a film to watch at 1am with the lights off. It’s a cinematic experience like no other.
WORDS: MAX FIGGETT
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