‘Under the Skin’: Brilliant mood piece about a fascinating femme fatale
By RICHARD ROEPER Movie Columnist April 10, 2014 3:06PM
Calling herself Laura, an alien of some kind (Scarlett Johansson) takes human form and lures Scottish men to an uncertain fate in “Under the Skin.” | A24
‘UNDER THE SKIN’ ★★★★
Laura Scarlett Johansson
Bad Man Jeremy McWilliams
A24 presents a film directed by Jonathan Glazer and written by Glazer and Walter Campbell, based the novel by Michel Faber. Running time: 107 minutes. Rated R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language). Opens Friday at Landmark Century Centre and Evanston Century 12.
Updated: May 12, 2014 6:12AM
Weird. Brilliant. Stunning.
“Under the Skin” is by far the most memorable movie of the first few months of 2014. It’s as if the script for “Species” had landed on Stanley Kubrick’s desk and he had decided to transform it into a stark mood piece that drills into your psyche and will stay there forever.
This is what we talk about when we talk about film as art.
Scarlett Johansson plays the Woman Who Fell to Earth, an alien of some kind who literally assumes the human features of, well, someone who looks like Scarlett Johansson in a wig, tight jeans, camisole and fur coat. Calling herself Laura, she cruises Scotland in the sort of van favored by movie serial killers, hitting on young lads. (Johansson speaks in a British accent, the better to play the part of a damsel in semi-distress looking for directions.)
It seems important to Laura to know if these men have families or if they’re single and unattached. If they’re in the latter category, she invites them into her van and then into her house.
And that’s when things get really creepy and mesmerizing, with Laura taking off her clothes while walking slowly backward, and the latest hookup taking off his clothes while moving forward, and the score growing louder and ever more screechy and intense.
Does she murder the men? Are they being preserved for their organs to be harvested? Are they held in some sort of black, inky limbo, to be dealt with later? The authentic, docu-style look of the film gives way to dialogue-free, audacious, symbolism-laden visuals that might have some viewers heading for the exits. At times “Under the Skin” almost dares you to say, “What the …?” Suffice to say no good comes of accepting Laura’s invitation for a lift and climbing into her van.
Laura has a partner of sorts — a “man” on a motorcycle who zooms at breakneck speeds through the winding roads of the Highlands of Scotland. He seems to know by instinct or telepathy exactly where Laura has left her latest victim — or when she’s having something resembling second thoughts about finishing the task at hand.
The man has no such moral qualms. He makes the first “Terminator” looks like a fountain of emotion. (Irish motorcyclist Jeremy McWilliams plays the Man. He’s clad in racing suit and helmet for most of the film, but when he takes off the helmet and stands inches from Laura, staring right through her, he’s effectively chilling.)
The location shots are so raw you can practically feel the cold rains and the harsh winds whipping through you. And you’ll feel a chill of a different kind in a scene that begins with Laura quizzing a surfer about his personal life and ends with a baby at the edge of the water, alone and wailing and terrified.
We’re told most of the scenes of Johansson chatting up those young men on the streets of Scotland were unscripted conversations with non-professionals, filmed with hidden cameras. The same goes for a scene in which Laura trips and falls on the sidewalk. It certainly has the feel of a documentary, or a low-budget indie, even with one of the world’s most glamorous stars sitting in that van. It’s a stark and effective contrast to the art-house scenes.
“Under the Skin” is directed by Jonathan Glazer, and it’s just his third film in 14 years. His first feature, “Sexy Beast” (2000), with Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, is one of the best gangster movies of the last 25 years. The 2004 Nicole Kidman vehicle “Birth” was an intriguing, bizarre mixed bag.
Glazer’s third film has already made splashes in the entertainment media on a number of fronts. It’s the first time Ms. Johansson has done explicit nude scenes in a film. It’s a film that was booed when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September. Some overseas critics have called it laughable, while others have hailed it as masterful.
It’s polarizing work. The score seems almost intended to make you cover your ears at times. The metaphors about the male-female dynamic are relentless. Some of those non-actors speak with such thick accents I won’t even pretend I knew what they were saying.
Scarlett Johansson is not the most expressive of actresses, but that deadpan, understated approach is perfectly suited to this role. Laura is an alien form in a beautiful woman’s body. She tries to assume a chipper, open personality when she’s seducing strange young men — but when she actually begins to feel empathy, she retracts into a near-catatonic state. In her encounters with a decent fellow who takes care of her, and then a scoundrel she encounters in the woods, Laura becomes increasingly vulnerable. We start to care about the creature under the skin.
I need to see this film again.