‘Under the Skin’ (2013) Movie Review – Toronto Film Festival


Under the Skin movie review
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Photo: A24

As far as I can tell, the highly existential experiment known as Under the Skin is essentially a fish out of water story and the reaction of said fish and the school in which she’s trying to swim. In this case the “fish” is an extraterrestrial being and the “school” in which she swims is humanity as a whole, with humanity represented by the people of Scotland.

This, still, is an oversimplification as writer/director Jonathan Glazer (along with co-writer Walter Campbell) have loosely adapted Michel Faber‘s 2000 novel into a story of an alien being come to Earth to harvest humans for sustenance and, in the process, finds compassion for her victims only to find with compassion comes injury. This, at least, is my interpretation of what I see as a highly cynical look at humanity, our judgment of others and mistreatment of those we don’t understand.

Told through the eyes of an alien being (played by Scarlett Johansson), we’re introduced to the film’s protagonist through a series of inexplicable images that eventually come to reveal a human eye, perhaps in an attempt to create a new way of looking at the world. Or at least suggesting the audience should attempt to look at the world through the eyes of the soon-to-be-revealed protagonist (Johansson), introduced as she strips the limp and lifeless body of her doppelgänger. A single tear rolls down the cheek of the now naked body as her double walks out of view wearing her clothes.

We next see this nameless being driving the streets of Scotland, stopping along the side of the road, asking passersby for directions and questioning some further: “Where are you going? Do you have family? Want a lift?” Smartly she picks up passengers that live alone or are heading somewhere without anyone’s knowledge. Assuming they will soon be having sex with this beautiful woman, the strangers agree to a lift and follow her willingly into a decrepit home.

She lures them in with her sexuality as she walks across an endless black mass, removing her clothes along the way. The men strip as they follow only to slowly sink into the black goo at their feet, never to be heard from again. Could this be a commentary on society’s objectification of women and the one-track male mind?

Every night she trolls the streets of Scotland, a location choice I also find interesting. Even though Farber’s original story was set in Scotland it feels like Glazer has used it to further advantage, ensuring the people the woman comes into contact with all speak with a heavy, nearly indecipherable Scottish accent. I interpreted this as a symbol of misunderstood familiarity. While we recognize the words as English, it’s difficult and sometimes impossible to fully understand what is being said. By doing this Glazer turns the audience into active participants, though, if this was actually his intent, it would only work with native English speakers as Scotsman that understand what’s being said or foreign audiences reading subtitles wouldn’t have a similar experience. My theory remains unproven… for now.

The film also seems to be making a commentary on society’s lack of attention to our youth, crying out for help. One scene finds the woman standing on a beach as heavy surf pounds into shore. A man rushes into the water to save his wife, leaving their baby on shore. The baby wails loudly, but the woman pays the child no attention as it’s left alone, presumably to die.

The alien’s last victim proves to be her downfall, refusing to treat him the way she has the others, a decision that results in the film’s final act, which I will leave for interested parties to decipher for themselves.

With all of that said, Glazer makes none of this apparent as it took me a solid 12 hours just to unpack this much and if the review comes across as confusing there’s good reason why, the film itself is far from straight forward and I had more fun trying to decipher it than actually watching it. For the first hour or so I was a willing participant, but I soon became weary of the experimental and distant nature of the story. The imagery is striking and beautiful, but the story needed a little something more.

Johansson does her best to hold our attention on her own, but the narrative around her and dark nature of each and every scene makes it hard to remain invested for the duration. There’s an organic nature to the whole thing as Mica Levi‘s score roars, rumbles, knocks and breathes, almost having a life of its own while Daniel Landin‘s cinematography captures the scene in murky shadows and grey fog. Scenes could be chosen to play in snippets on museum walls, but as a feature film it’s kept at arm’s length.

I’m happy to have seen Under the Skin, but any future viewings will most likely necessitate a Blu-ray commentary track, otherwise I don’t really see the point.