Sunday, April 6, 2014

Under The Skin (****)

Directed by Jonathan Glazer


English filmmaker Jonathan Glazer made his name as a director of music videos and commercials. His videos for Jamiroquai ('Virtual Insanity') and Radiohead ('Karma Police'), amongst others, displayed a man who had a virtuosic ability to both limit his dramatic arenas while stretching those limits and exploring just what is possible within a self-imposed bubble. He's only made three feature films in fourteen years, his first one being a half-cooked English crime film, Sexy Beast, which owed most of its charm to an insanely vain performance from Ben Kingsley. In 2004, he made Birth which seemed like a truer display of his visual style. Birth is aggressive in its formalism and contains one of the greatest performances of Nicole Kidman's career. That film was about a young boy convinced that he is the reincarnated soul of Nicole Kidman's dead husband, but Glazer paid very little attention to the paranormal aspects and focused mostly on the reaction of a mourning widow. His latest film, Under The Skin, is a science fiction story about a visiting alien, but it doesn't spend much time detailing the specific aspects of the species, instead showcasing the procedural elements of this unknown creature.

Skin opens with a Kubrickian sequence of strange, undefinable images backed by a score that beats on loudly before the images finally come together and take the form of Scarlett Johansson. We hear her teaching herself how to speak as a human. A motorcyclist (played by an actor named Jeremy McWilliams) finds her some clothes from the body of a dead woman he's found off the highway road. This motorcyclist is also an alien in human form, and works as a sort of manager of Johansson's activities (there are no character names given, not even in the credits). He also provides her with a van and watches her drive off on her journey. Her directive informs her that she must drive the streets of hilly Scottish villages, pulling over frequently to ask various men for directions. She's flirtatious and seems to have an uncanny ability of mimicking the exact kind of personality each individual man wants from her. When she's able to bring these men back to her home, the men are excited with the idea of sex and they march forward - led, almost literally, by their erections - straight into their death where their insides are harvested. What do these aliens do with these insides? Why do they need them? Who is the man on the motorcycle, and who do he and Scarlett Johansson work for?

Glazer is incredibly allusive in regards to answers to these questions, and it doesn't seem like he has much interest in the answers either. Glazer's fascination is with images and the reactions they illicit from the audience. Under The Skin gives you the pieces to create your own allegorical explanations if your the kind of viewer that needs that kind of comfort, but the film itself isn't direct enough to really be 'about' anything outside of its specific story. It's closest doppelganger is Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell To Earth which was also about an alien form (played by David Bowie) who comes to Earth, but is corrupted by the capitalistic excess which leads to its downfall. Both films played with the images of its main star; for Roeg, he was basically having fun with the idea that Bowie has always seemed like an alien amongst the rest of the human race. With the casting of Johansson, Glazer is playing with the actress's infamous sultriness. There is also the Freudian idea of the sexual hunger destroying the male species, but Glazer doesn't seem to have a lot of interest in that - well, perhaps he does but in no more than a flippant, joking kind of way. Faced with the most fascinating role of her career, Johansson gives her most immersive performance to date, battling with the ideas of eroticism and anti-eroticism at the same time.

American movie stars tend to be at their best when they understand what the audience expects from them and play against that expectation. I feel like it took Johansson a bit longer than usual to recognize the audience expectations (in the case of someone like, say George Clooney or Jennifer Lawrence, they seem to have an understanding of what their audience wants even before those audiences have been formed), but her last three roles seem to be showing off that knowledge. In Don Jon, she fully accepts her position as a sex symbol and plays a character who uses it for some diabolical manipulation. With Her, we learned that all we need is to hear her voice to help us illustrate a sexy person in our minds. In Under The Skin, Johansson plays a figure who attracts men just by the power of existing. She drives a van that's somewhere between sketchy and untenable, and uses it as her own personal spaceship. Her gaze is almost always straight ahead and she does very little blinking. But Johansson is able to create a character out of this mechanical being and in a lot of ways that is the closest thing Under The Skin has to a narrative arc: the transformation of the cold, task-oriented alien into a empathetic being who suddenly finds herself questioning her existence and seeking an end to the loneliness that the job saddles her with.

If the idea of the alien "becoming human" feels like a tired plot trope, that's because it is, but Glazer puts it in an interesting context that makes it feel less hackneyed. It's not that her developing feelings are making her more like a human, it's that they're making her less like an alien. We're never placed in a position to believe that Johansson will ever have a successful transportation into the human world, even though she does try. Glazer is constantly shooting her in profile, as if she is on display, a perfectly executed attempt at the human race. And Johansson, who seems to learn about the facts of Earth with the speed in which Keanu learned kung-fu in The Matrix, never allows for the part to lapse into melodrama. Under The Skin's tone is incredibly chilly, too dependent on the power of its images to really commit to a generic plot line at any point, and this ambiguity will likely frustrate many an audience who may have entered the theater with only the expectation to see "something sexy with Scarlett Johansson". Not to say that the film doesn't have a heart, because it does have few moments of real tenderness - including an extended sequence in which Johansson meets a man played by the actor Adam Pearson, who's face is severely deformed by neurofibromatosis - but the film does not dwell on those moments, they're just one of many.

The film is based on a novel by Michael Faber, but apparently only the most obvious story points are taken and Glazer has essentially hollowed out the story to make it his own. It, of course, does seem to be his purest creation, the most unmolested piece of art that he was able to make up to this point in his career. It's part of a major subsection of sci-fi films that embrace the mind-bending, cinematic details of the genre without feeling the burden to pay homage to the literary roots. Like another erotic thriller in theaters right now, EnemyUnder The Skin is able to create its tension just by the very look - but unlike Enemy, it's cinematography is less slick, more handheld and documentary-like (in fact, most of the men who enter Johansson's van were not actors but actual men, and didn't even know they were in a movie until after when Glazer told them so). Compared with the other Johansson film in theaters right now, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Under The Skin is exponentially less commercial and will probably have trouble finding an audience outside of Glazer maniacs and the most committed of Scarjo fans. That seems about right since this was not a film made for consumption. If anything, it's closer to being about the opposite of that. Despite being separated by nearly a decade, Under The Skin is a brilliant companion piece to Birth, both detailing the effects of different types of isolation on female characters, and both are supplied by Glazer's wondrous visual style to create some of the most exciting cinema that is available to us.

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