Jonathan Glazer’s most recent film as director — after SEXY BEAST and BIRTH (he’s three for three!) — has been most often called a science-fiction film and it has been called an art film, and I suppose both classifications are apt. By any measure it’s one of the most fascinating films of any kind to hit American screens in many years, but personally, my own experience with it, the emotions it provoked in me, would classify it closest to horror.
UNDER THE SKIN is eerie and deliberate, and while nothing that happens in it is specifically scary by definition, the way it all plays out is extremely unsettling — but not, aside from the roiling ambient score by Mica Levi, in a way that makes you look over your shoulder when you hear a sound at night. It’s more troubling in the way it presents humanity as such a fragile, fluid element, one which very easily drains away.
Scarlett Johansson, who normally reads to me like a very warm presence onscreen, bleaches all color from her performance — as an audience member, just as any of the hapless passengers who cross her path, you look for some way to connect with this figure and it just isn’t there.
The most emotive, affecting performance in the film comes from Adam Pearson, a severely disfigured man who in real life has neurofibromatosis. Due to his affliction his expressions are scarcely scrutable, though objectively speaking he’s probably the most relatable, recognizable character in the entire picture. That would be a callow irony in almost any other film, but here nothing quite that heartwarming is at play. When she lets this man live, the nameless alien she-predator played by Johansson begins a shift towards sensation that is more of a chink in the armor than an optimistic development. It’s sort of like what happens when Neil MacCauley lets Waingro into the crew in HEAT, and later fails to eliminate him — the one time he drops his emotion-free all-business facade, he manages to invite in the virus that becomes his ultimate undoing.
Letting anything remotely resembling emotion into an efficient and remorseless system turns out to be a fatal impurity for the never-named lead character. That may be a real dark reading, but it rings truest to my mind. No wonder I haven’t been able to shake this movie for many months and still counting.
UNDER THE SKIN (2013)
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