There are very few films that simultaneously touch and terrify. This is one of them.
By Jessica Keller
When approached to review Jonathon Glazer’s latest feature, Under the Skin, I was daunted by the task of condensing this gargantuan effort, a brilliantly schizophrenic blend of science fiction, horror, and the human condition, into a digestible review. To critique demands a degree of assurance, a command of the film. But I am not in command. I was not assured. In this raw uncertainty the film finds its brilliance.
The film begins in the birth of an eye- a black, Kubrickian form docks into the waiting irises of alien Laura, an expertly cast Scarlett Johansson. This is a rare instance where an audience’s awareness of an actor’s reputation, and sex symbol status, enhances the narrative. Johansson is truly alien among the quiet landscapes and unknown cast- and we’re sold on her allure before the film begins. But Johansson nails the character on her own merits, offering a beautifully understated performance that ranges from robotic to heart-wrenchingly helpless.
We open with the former, a cold husk of a creature who roams Scottish streets and highlands, luring lonely men into her van, her shack of a home, and a hypnotic black abyss. Thankfully Glazer leaves the purpose of her mission largely ambiguous, allowing viewers engage with the bewilderment of her victims. Their vulnerability is palpable, reinforced by long shots of passerby, a haunting soundtrack by Mica Levi, and Johansson’s paralyzing stare. But though the film features extraterrestrial elements, it’s source of horror hits closer to home. It’s a familiar, innately feminine nightmare.
Under the Skin turns gender convention on its head, posing men as victims of a roaming sexual predator. Never having learnt to run from strangers in vans, the real men secretly recorded for the film approach Scarlett Johansson willingly- all smiles and no inhibitions. Reversed, I can scarcely imagine women doing the same. The film takes advantage of their privileged sense of safety, crafting a narrative where rape culture is hauntingly reversed. The look-over-your-shoulder anxiety of a woman alone on the street comes alive for the opposite sex, with fascinating consequences.
But though Laura is effective as an instrument of fear, Glazer isn’t content to leave her there. In its second half, the film avoids the cliché of classic horror sirens, blurring the line between prey and predator. As the locations diverge from Glasgow streets to sprawling highlands, so does Laura’s perspective broaden. Effectively told with minimal dialogue, we watch as her capacity for empathy breeds a desire to be human. She abandons the van, her weapon, and takes a walk through a long cloud of fog. The woman who emerges is one we’ve never seen before, someone who just may be one of us. Removed from the glass windows that shielded her, Laura has stripped to our level. But humanity comes at a cost.
There are very few films that simultaneously touch and terrify. This is one of them. Under the Skin is a visual and emotional triumph, a film that taps into our fears and desperate needs, exposing our fragility- and questioning what it means to be alone.
Jessica Keller is a cinematographer, photographer, writer and director based in Orlando, FL. She is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Film Production at the University of Central Florida. Her interest lies in capturing a genuine human element through the lens.