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Under The Skin (2013, Dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Rupert Lally
Dec 11, 2020 · 4 min read

Synopsis:

Aided by an unnamed motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams), a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) lures unsuspecting young men that she meets on the streets of Glasgow, back to to a house where they are consumed by a black liquid. After letting a disfigured young man (Adam Pearson) live, however, she seems to question what she is doing and escapes into the Scottish highlands.

We conclude our series on underrated “disturbing” films with this stunning and mesmerizing sci-fi featuring a truly amazing performance by Scarlet Johansson.

Some films aren’t so much underrated as under seen. Everyone I know who has seen this film has praised it for its visual style, its amazingly creepy soundtrack by Mica Levi and Johansson’s performance, which is truly unlike any other she’s given; and yet there are plenty who haven’t seen it, perhaps put off by its highly stylized take on sci-fi, which divided the critics on its release and which is why I think it warrants inclusion on this blog.

Opening with a black screen, from which a pin prick of light appears in the middle, becoming slowly brighter before it envelops the whole screen, whereupon the camera angle shifts and we the light is caused by two objects locking together, where the white object is slowly taken over by a black liquid floating up from its centre, this cuts to the pupil in an eye. From the very opening shots Glazer puts the viewer on edge. No explanation is given for what’s happening here. Is it the alien character being born? Is it something in space? This is a film that examines what it means to be alien, from an alien’s perspective. It mixes the mundane and the otherworldly in a way that it’s hard to compare with any other film and, as such, makes it a hard film to put into words or to describe one’s feelings about. Many critics have identified feminist or gender themes in the film and there’s plenty of examples within it to sustain those arguments, though for me that’s almost too constricting a view of a film that is deliberately oblique in its meaning. There’s no exposition and little in the way of dialogue (in fact there’s no dialogue at all for the film’s first 13 minutes and it’s final 10) and the viewer is left to make up their own mind as why Johansson’s character is luring these men to their deaths or what the motorcyclist’s connection with her is. At times the very lack of explanation and strangeness is what is disturbing. At other times, it’s more straightforward: the crying infant left by both the woman and the motorcyclist on the beach, after it’s parents drown or Johansson’s seduction of the disfigured young man.

With many of the other parts played by non actors (sometimes with accents so thick it’s hard even for me to understand what they’re saying), it’s left to Johansson to carry the film and carry it she does. So many shots in the film are focused on her face or of her positioned against the landscape. If anyone has any lingering doubts as to her abilities as an actor, they will be dispelled after a single viewing of this film. Here we have one of the most famous actors in Hollywood, working on a largely unscripted film, shot documentary style on the streets of Scotland, speaking in a faultless British accent and giving a performance so far apart from anything else she has done, that you have to keep reminding yourself who you’re watching. In casting her, Glazer pulls off a major casting coup — nothing looks more alien and jarring than the sight of Johansson walking around cold, rainy Scottish towns or awkwardly chatting up men from the driver’s seat of her battered white transit van.

The eerie strangeness of it all is is heightened by Mica Levi’s extraordinary score, which fuses Penderecki style extended orchestral techniques with ominous soundscapes. The music is given plenty of space and at times the abstract nature of the visuals serve to make the score almost a character in the film.

This is sci-fi in it’s most languid and enigmatic form. The weird visual beauty of both the scenes in the black room where Johansson’s character brings the men and the final scenes in the bleak snow covered forest, bring to mind comparisons with the work of Tarkovsky. Visually, the film manages to show both the beauty and ugliness of Scotland in a way that few films, other than perhaps Lars Von Trier’s Breaking The Waves, have. Like Von Trier’s film, this film’s slow pace and improvised scenes can make this fascinating but difficult watch.

This is clearly a film for which you need to be in the right mindset for, yet if you can handle its beautiful oddness it’s one that will linger long in your memory for, as the title suggests, this really does get “under the skin”.

Rupert Lally

Written by

Electronic musician and self-confessed movie nerd: Rupert Lally writes about underrated movies that he loves.

“You Need To See This…”

Films you’ve never seen but should, films you have seen but should watch again

Rupert Lally

Written by

Electronic musician and self-confessed movie nerd: Rupert Lally writes about underrated movies that he loves.

“You Need To See This…”

Films you’ve never seen but should, films you have seen but should watch again

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