Under the Skin (A24, R)

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It is a movie which will get strong reactions (negative and positive) from people, and that should always be celebrated. 

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Under the Skin is based on a book. I haven’t read it, but I want to now, to see how this story plays on the page, because the movie version feels purely cinematic. There is very little “story” and what there is doesn’t show up for about an hour. There is very little dialogue, and most of it is unintelligible. The key sections of the film are so reliant on visuals and sound that it’s hard to imagine a similar experience in any other art form.

An alien (there are no character names anywhere in the movie or the credits) comes to earth, takes the form of Scarlett Johansson, and drives around Scotland entrapping lonely men. That’s the first hour of the movie. There is something off about these “pick-up” scenes, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I found them so interesting. Having read up on the film afterwards, I now know. Almost all of these scenes were filmed with hidden cameras and involved non-actors who they came across on the street. This explains why so much of the dialogue sounds like gibberish. I normally pride myself on being able to understand people with accents, but these thick Scottish accents in a messy sound mix really felt like a foreign language, of which I only understood a word or two. This is fine because the main character is literally an alien, so the foreign feel helps us identify with her, and also because the storytelling is so visual.

The documentary aspect of these scenes also makes Johansson’s performance seem even more impressive. She basically has to stay in character, coming off to the audience as predatory, while also convincing these normal guys to get in a car with her, and all while ad-libbing. She’s great throughout, managing to fit into the crowds while never quite seeming human. She also gets naked, which is sure to attract the wrong kind of person to this movie. You’ll probably be able to spot them in the theater, and you should feel free to laugh at them when they leave frustrated and confused.

And what happens once she gets these men home? Well, like I said, I don’t know if words can do it justice. It’s beautiful and creepy and I don’t quite understand it, but I could watch it over and over again, and luckily, the film shows it over and over again. I tend to be one of those guys who knocks CGI and always prefers practical effects. I can’t tell how much of this is which, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What matters is that this imagery is unique and interesting, and none of it feels real, so all of it feels real. I also have to give major props to composer Mica Levi, whose score is every bit as strange, beautiful and unsettling as the images it accompanies.

The “plot” does move on eventually. Johansson begins to develop more human tendencies and there are some role reversals, and there is plenty to discuss, but if this movie can be spoiled, it would be by going into this later section. Suffice it to say that the movie goes to some interesting places and while the themes addressed have been addressed before, this film explores them in an interesting way.

The trailer for Under the Skin quotes one critic who proclaims, “we may have found an heir to Kubrick.” This seems like a cruel thing to do to anyone. Stanley Kubrick was a singular director, and we will never see another Kubrick. Director Jonathan Glazer is certainly inspired by Kubrick, and others like David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, and he’s managed to imitate them without looking foolish, which is quite an achievement. I don’t know if Glazer is quite one of the best directors working, but he’s made the list of filmmakers I will check out no matter what they do. This is an impressive film which deserves to be seen in a movie theater. You may not love it, but you probably won’t be indifferent. It is a movie which will get strong reactions (negative and positive) from people, and that should always be celebrated. | Sean Lass

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