Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: "Under the Skin"

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Runtime: 108 minutes

It's been a decade since Jonathan Glazer's last film, the unfairly maligned Birth, hit theaters. His newest effort, which he's been trying to get made since 2002, is a chilly calling card that makes one hope his next project won't take nearly as long to debut. In Under the Skin, an adaptation of Michael Faber's novel, Glazer goes even deeper down Kubrickian rabbit hole as his cinematic voice continues to bloom. Though slow in pace, this minimalist sci-fi drama boasts an eerie, hypnotic atmosphere, as well as a captivating and subtle turn from star Scarlett Johansson.

Yet while Under the Skin's style calls to mind Mr. Kubrick, its narrative shares more with Nicolas Roeg's famous The Man Who Fell to Earth. That film starred David Bowie as an alien making his way through human society, albeit in a rather passive way. Glazer and Johansson's woman who fell to earth, however, is much more predatory. Her sole mission, which we learn only through visual storytelling, is to lure men back to her lair and consume them. How she does this is never explicitly shown either, though Mr. Glazer captures one such devouring in an unsettlingly abstract sequence in the first half. 

Filmed using guerrilla techniques (many of Johansson's interactions are with everyday, unaware citizens of Scotland), Glazer's main goal is to make Under the Skin a sensory experience. Even with the often glacial pacing, it's a decision that pays off in the long run. Under the Skin's early scenes are its most difficult to get through, but only because they're so in sync with Johansson's nameless predatory protagonist: cold, aloof, alluring, and existentially unnerving. 

Had there been no progression from the initial seduce and attack structure, Under the Skin would certainly have become a chore to sit through. So it's with great relief that, after a significant encounter shakes the alien's faith in her mission, that the frost-bitten puzzle pieces start to add up to something greater. Though there are other, parallel interpretations worth exploring (most notably involving power and gender), Under the Skin's primary journey is one of a predator coming to sympathize with her prey. Early on, she drifts through her strange surroundings, only showing emotion when it becomes necessary. Yet after her fateful encounter, the cracks start to show, even as they're often obscured in inky black shadows.

Much of this comes down to Johansson's finely tuned performance, which is tasked with carrying the entire enterprise. Watching this blank, withdrawn observer shift from domineering seductress to curious investigator of the human race is a quiet miracle thanks to what Johansson is able to communicate with her face. In Birth, Nicole Kidman received considerable attention for a prolonged silent reaction shot during a scene at an opera. Johansson's performance in Under the Skin is that same bit of acting stretched out over 108 minutes. Under different circumstances, it could have easily fallen apart, but Glazer has once again worked wonders with his leading lady to produce a low key, yet intelligently crafted performance. 

The lone drawback to Glazer's approach is that it could prove too arctic to engage with at all. In planting us so firmly in the head of the alien wanderer, Glazer makes the film difficult to truly get lost in at the start. Even when Under the Skin does start to open up, it's in tiny increments. As such, there are a few scenes here and there that could probably do with losing a few seconds here and there, if only to get to the heart of the narrative a tad faster. 

Still, it's commendable how Glazer sticks to his vision and never wavers for the sake of accessibility. Under the Skin is defiantly cold, even when it finally asks us to feel some sense of sympathy for its central character. Underscoring it all is Mica Levi's brilliantly strange music, which only intensifies the feeling that we're viewing our world through the lens of another. At her core, Johansson's alien is just too fundamentally different to exist within our world, unless she sticks to her violent programming. Yet just because she, and Under the Skin, are hard to relate to, doesn't mean that they lack value. Quite the contrary. It's that very obtuseness that demands that we look so much closer. 

Grade: A-

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