The Films of 2014: Under the Skin

Last night I was lucky enough to catch an advance screening of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin at the Coolidge Corner Theater, courtesy of IFF Boston.  I’m still reeling from the experience: it’s an extraordinary film, a heady, sexy, nervy sci-fi thriller set in the Scottish countryside, where a beautiful alien being (Scarlett Johansson) seduces and kills a series of male strangers.   

Under the Skin is a study in identification in which the audience must work to understand Johansson’s character along with her; we piece together the rules that govern her environment and her body with the same halting curiosity that she does.  As her character learns more about the world around her—which is to say, our world—the film probes deeper existential and social questions.  It belongs to a long tradition of novels and films that use the conventions of the sci-fi genre to hold up a mirror to modern society, de-familiarizing twenty-first century life and social behavior (and twenty-first century mating rituals in particular).  While it’s possible to read Under the Skin politically—as a portrait of dehumanization under late capitalism, or even as a feminist Frankenstein story—the film is less interested in making moralistic or political claims than in making the familiar textures of everyday life appear strange, threatening, and eerily beautiful, and in engaging the question of what divides human from non-human behavior.

In a Q&A after the screening, Glazer and producer Nick Wechsler mentioned that the source novel by Michel Faber more explicitly describes the alien predator bringing her victims back to an underground lair, where they’re mutilated and fed upon.  Much to its credit, Glazer’s film is more suggestive, less heavily plotted, and very likely creepier: Glazer makes superb use of symbolic imagery, editing, sound, and music to convey narrative information rather than relying on dialogue and complicated plot points.  (Much of what little dialogue the film does contain is articulated in such heavy Scots accents that it’s incomprehensible anyway—which, whether intentionally or not, only serves to heighten the film’s disorienting effect.)  And yet the film’s plot unfolds with a sinuous, graceful momentum.  Glazer’s previous film, Birth (2004), had a similarly unsettling tone but seemed less sure-footed, narrative-wise.  The same could be said of Sean Carruth’s Upstream Color, which Under the Skin resembles in certain ways.  Here, Glazer perfectly offsets his surreal, ambiguous style with a compelling and well-crafted narrative.  Even when Glazer tones down the radical experimentation in the film’s second half, he continues to take the story in such surprising directions that its ingenuity never feels compromised.  This is certain to be one of the year’s most memorable and striking films.          

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