Under The Skin

You can feel the cold.

That’s the simplest way to explain Jonathan Glazer’s success with Under the Skin, the new movie starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien force who seduces human beings, and sucks away their life force.

Human skin can feel. It forms the outermost envelope of self and keeps us all inside one plasma-pumping package. It’s the biggest organ that forms our soft shell, and when we are alive, it is warm to the touch.

Glazer’s movie is set in Scotland, during the winter, and one of his recurring images features high winds swirling over a frigid, churning ocean. The frame is cast in blue and grey, and for a split second, it all looks so uncomfortably cold you can almost feel icicles forming over your eyelids.

In this hostile landscape, being a warm-blooded human being becomes extremely special. In many ways, it’s almost miraculous, and it’s in this hint of spirituality that Glazer finds the emotional and metaphysical leverage required to keep us engaged in his minimalist movie experiment.

Under the Skin barely contains any dialogue. For the most part, we are watching Johansson drive from one black landscape to another behind the wheel of a generic transport truck.

She’s attractive, and she pretends to be lost in sketchy parts of town. As a wolf’s gaze settles into the eyes of the men she approaches, we fear for her safety. This is how women in movies end up dead, but Glazer uses film cliché to his own advantage by showing us the exact opposite.

It’s Johansson’s character that is preying on the lust of her victims, and one after one, we watch men with full erections walk, hypnotized, into an oily black bath that eventually separates them from their skin.

It sounds violent and horrific. But it’s not. Glazer turns these sequences into surreal dreamscapes that highlight a sense of alienation and loneliness because this is unlike any monster movie, or any slasher horror, or any science-fiction-fuelled exploration of the human condition.

Glazer is accessing abstracts that have no linguistic translation.

In fact, his most distressing and disturbing scene features no dialogue whatsoever — just the sound of a baby crying over howling wind and breaking waves.

Not since Sam Peckinpah forced a little girl to scrape her leg for a Band-Aid commercial has such minimal footage created such a swell of feeling because not since Peckinpah has a director been so surgically precise with the notion of emotional violence.

Glazer throws us into a cold black sea of experience where the only thing that can save us is a loving connection to another human being. However, in this harsh landscape, human warmth comes at a premium — if at all.

Abandonment becomes a central theme, and thanks to Johansson’s courage and growing sense of empathy in the character, the beating heart of the human voyage becomes more transparent just as it grows weaker and weaker, until it disappears completely.

A bone-chilling piece of cinema that sinks in like an alien splinter, Under the Skin leaves a unique — and oddly beautiful — scar.


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