Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Under the Skin

Darkness. Through the darkness, births light. Small at first, barely there. A white circle the size of a needle tip, slowly growing. Sound creeps in. A mesh of incomprehensible auditory measures layered with incoherent words. The light grows. The sound clears. Without warning, the screen is filled with white. A giant eyeball appears. It’s a perfect eye, void of redness. The sound even louder, the words slightly clearer.

It is born. And so it begins.

These opening shots of Jonathan Glazer’s beautiful, rare and hypnotic new film, Under the Skin, perfectly set the tone for everything that follows. The mood, unsettling. The rhythms, essential. The story, unique. To fully reveal the mechanics of such a carefully constructed, meticulously detailed film would be a disservice to potential viewers. So we’ll proceed cautiously.

Essentially, the film is about a mysterious woman who is not a woman. Who It is and where It came from will be for you to deduce. But throughout the film, we watch as It drives around Scotland in a large white van, routinely luring unsuspecting men into the car. Now, because It is played by Scarlett Johansson, It has no trouble getting men into the car. It speaks with a gentle British accent and inflects a faultless babe in the woods routine that the men find desirable. Once in the van, It uses mild sexual innuendos to make clear that It wants the man. When things go as planned (and, on occasion, they do not), It baits the men into a shabby home and what happens next is best left seen, not read.
We watch as It engages in this routine repeatedly, with It occasionally stepping out of the van to attract men elsewhere. There’s a scene on a beach, for instance, that is one of the most quietly unsettling things I’ve ever seen in a film. Void of gratuitous violence and dialogue, the scene perfectly displays Its apathy for emotion and human worth. However, concerning plot and character motivation, Glazer has been very careful to reveal that Under the Skin is about It becoming She. And that’s the perfect way to describe the film. Because, after a particularly memorable experience with a badly deformed man, the apathy It is consumed by slowly starts to fade. Emotion creeps in. She is born, and we begin again.

Under the Skin is unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s a mesmerizing experiment of emotional expression and individuality. At the center is Scarlett Johansson, who is featured in nearly every frame of the picture. It’s by far Johansson’s finest work yet – delicate, restrained, and boldly, intentionally, flat. It’s a role based entirely on sexuality, but, oddly, could very well be the least sensual performance of her career. I’ve admired her work for years, and appreciate that she’s previously taken on challenging roles that demand more than just a pretty face. But frankly, I didn’t know she had It in her. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable people in the world, and I so respect that, for her part in Under the Skin, she suspended all vanity in order to enhance the strength of the material. The star of this film is the story, and the lead actress has given herself over to it faultlessly.
Every other element of the picture is impeccable, but specific attention needs to be given to sound designer Johnnie Burn, whose complex and intricate sounds immerse us in the film’s unique world. I’m not a skilled enough audio engineer to fully articulate the mastery of Burn’s work. There’s a specificity to it that is wholly original; a hollow, reverberating echo that will haunt you. Mica Levi’s original score is equally impressive, accompanying Burn’s work seamlessly. At times, it’s difficult to tell whose work you’re listening to – Burn’s sonic waves, or Levi’s unobtrusive rhythms. Together, they create an auditory paradise that is as important to the film as Johansson’s performance.

Daniel Landin’s digital, immersive cinematography, Paul Watts’ patient and precise editing, even Steven Noble’s costume design – which amusingly puts Johansson in a wardrobe that only outsiders would find conventionally sexy – all service the material perfectly. To say I’m taken with the execution of the film would be a drastic understatement. But there’s more going on here. Beyond what is on the screen, the way Glazer got it there is something that should not be overlooked.

In an effort to inject a sense of realism into the picture, most of the supporting actors featured in Under the Skin are real people who didn’t know they were being filmed. Glazer hid multiple cameras in the van Johansson was driving, and filmed her as she cruised around Glasgow, attempting to pick up men. When men got in the car, Johansson improvised dialogue with the passengers, who, again, were completely unaware that they were being filmed. Glazer and his team (including Johansson’s bodyguard) followed closely in another vehicle, and once Johansson’s conversation with a passenger was completed, she pulled over and Glazer would approach them to explain what had happened.
There’s an immediate danger to filming this way that Johansson would’ve had to courageously overlook. Once past the threat, she was able to tap into a specific level of vulnerability that so expertly services her character. Another factor to consider: Glazer and his team had to throw away hours and hours of excellent footage. Several of the men who got into the van refused to sign the rights to be in the film, forcing Glazer to toss out all of their respective footage. I can’t imagine how maddening, yet oddly inspiring, that must have been. And it wasn’t just in the van. Glazer and his crew hid cameras all over Glasgow and told Johansson to go out and just be. So, when It falls in the middle of a busy Glasgow sidewalk and waits to be helped up, that actually happened. None of it was staged or rehearsed. That’s how you create a film unlike all others – you detach and observe. You capture, capture, capture, and shape tirelessly in editing.

Under the Skin is the kind of film you don’t see, but rather, experience. Glazer is an accomplished music video director who has previously made two feature films, the thrilling and hilarious Sexy Beast, and the eerie mind trip that is Birth. Under the Skin is his finest film accomplishment yet –  the type of movie I’m indebted to, because it brazenly asserts that originality in cinema still exists. It’s one of the few films from recent years that I’ve actively fantasized about for nearly every waking moment since seeing it (twice). And, in my world, that’s about as good a feeling as I can experience.

37 comments:

  1. I haven't read your review, but that A is encouraging. Be back once I've seen it. ;)

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    1. I think you'll really dig this one man. Can't wait to hear your thoughts!

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  2. Wow, great review! I read the book this past year, so I'm looking forward to this one. I hope it does the crazier parts of it justice.

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    1. Thanks Brittani! I'd love to give the book a read sometime. Glazer did admit that he strayed from the book (drastically, on occasion), so I'll be curious to hear your thoughts on the film.

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  3. Can't wait to see this! Love Glazer's previous films but this looks like something else entirely (some review I'm sure you've read as well, though I don't remember who wrote it, said that all three films looks and feel like they were directed by three entirely different people).

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    1. I didn't read that review, but that is a spot-on analysis. I think that's the benefit of making features so far apart. It allows you to develop a completely new style, as opposed to churning out films one after the other, year by year. I rewatched Sexy Beast and Birth last weekend, and yeah, they are nothing like each other, nor Under the Skin. Very, very cool. The bad news is that we may have to wait a decade before we get another Glazer film. Can't wait to hear what you think about UtS!

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  4. gosh i wish i loved it as much as you did. i thought there were elements of great, but much left unexplored.

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    1. That's definitely fair. I think this was a film rooted in ambiguity. It asked the questions, but it's up to the audience to find the answers.

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  5. Excellent review, sir, for an excellent film. I saw this the other day. It is the film I have been waiting to see for years. A film to push the boundaries of science fiction as an art form, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Moon. I loved every second of it's expertly paced, beautifully staged narrative, and Scarlett Johansson... man, she really was a revelation here. I can't wait to check out some more of Glazer's work, although I can tell they're pretty different from Under the Skin.

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    1. Thanks man! I completely agree with you; watching Under the Skin immediately brought thoughts of 2001 to my mind, which is about as grand a compliment as you can give a film of this kind. So unique and special and raw. Loved it.

      Sexy Beast is insanely rewatchable. It does things with dialogue and narrative that I've never seen before. A grade-A film. Birth is very, very... different. You liking it will be completely dependent on how far you're willing to accept its world. Same can be said for Under the Skin, though. So, basically, I think you'll dig all of his films!

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    2. Sounds great, man. Thanks!

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  6. I'm relieved to learn that this film is coming to a nearby local arthouse theater as I will see it this weekend and hope for something great though I will maintain low expectations.

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    1. Awesome, so happy to hear it's coming your way. I always have low expectations going into a film as well. Best that way. Still, I think you're going to love this one.

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  7. I'm so excited for this movie! I saw the trailer some time ago, and it looks absolutely stunning, and your review only confirms it. On another note, have you seen the trailer for Lucy? If you have, what do you think of it? I think it looks pretty awesome :)

    Have you seen the Cannes 2014 lineup? Man, those are some movies!

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    1. I really hope you like Under the Skin. I'll be very curious to hear your thoughts. I think Lucy looks perfectly fine for the type of movie it is, you know? It's not necessarily my type of movie, but there's nothing wrong with that.

      The Cannes line-up is insane! So many great names there. I'm really excited for Foxcatcher. I think that one's gonna floor people.

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    2. I agree on Foxcatcher, I really wish Steve Carell got more attention of Little Miss Sunshine, especially considering that Arkin's performance won the Oscar.

      I'm pretty excited for Lucy. I mean, Luc Besson & Scarlett Johansson? SOLD. As for Under the Skin, I doubt it'll come out in cinemas where I live, since movies are released much later than in the US or UK (Amour & Blue is the Warmest Colour were released in cinemas at the same time).

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    3. *for Little Miss Sunshine

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    4. I really hope Under the Skin makes it your way soon. That film should be out EVERYWHERE! I didn't really love Little Miss Sunshine, but I adored Carell's work in it. I think he's going to bring something very special to Foxcatcher.

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    5. So, I finally was able to watch Under the Skin. There are not enough words in existence to fully describe this masterpiece. In our age, there had to be someone to remind all of us that films don't need to be in 3D to visually mesmerize the audience, and in a way, transport us into another world. Under the Skin did exactly that, and then some. Everyone who had a part to play in Under the Skin need to be applauded, for their achievements are unlike anything I have ever seen before, especially Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer. All of those comparisons to Kubrick are definitely worthy. Glazer and Johansson have created something otherworldly, something that deserves to be seen by anyone who is even the slightest fan of cinema. Under the Skin has defied my expectations, and like Gravity, has shocked me to the core. Under the Skin is why cinema exists, and why some of the pioneers that will lead us into the future are the independent filmmakers, like Glazer, Harmony Korine, Shane Carruth, and you! They show us something different, they want us to be immersed in their world.

      You know how I tweeted you a few months ago saying that Enemy was the best film of 2014, and that it would be difficult for me to see any film that would top it? Under the Skin is not only the best film of 2014, it is a piece of cinematic art, that deserves to be treasured, and believe it or not, is already one of my favourite films of all time, and I've only seen it once! To put it simply, Under the Skin is the reason why I go to the movies.

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  8. I'm thrilled to see such a glowing review on this, because I hadn't read much on it. The trailer grabbed my attention immediately. That's so wild how they shot the cab scenes with non-actors unaware of filming...can't wait to check that out. Great review...cannot wait!

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    1. Thanks! This film is a special kind of weird. I absolutely loved it. Can't wait to read your review once you've seen it!

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  9. Really great review Alex. I like the way you described the opening shot, because that alone is one of the best openings of all time. This is a very thought provoking sci-fi with a great performance by Johansson . I want to revisit this one, but not right away. The plot structure was a bit too slow for me at times I will have to read the book first before I do

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    1. Thanks buddy! I'd love to give the book a read as well. I'm told it has a more detail than the film, which would create an interesting perspective for the entire Under the Skin spectrum. Really glad you liked this one as well!

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  10. I love your review! I always have to write mine before reading yours because I'm so afraid I will unconsciously rewrite your brilliance in my own words.

    This was just really great filmmaking all around. The ending devastated me in a totally unexpected way. Between this and Enemy this year has a great start in the weird movie genre.

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    1. Aww thanks Jess, you're too kind! I always make sure to write my review before reading others... you never know what's going to creep in.

      That ending... ah, it still haunts me. That look on Its face, devastating. And yes, between this and Enemy, we're off to a great mindfuck of a year in movies!

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  11. I'm seeing this tonight so I don't have an opinion yet on this film, but regardless great review!

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  12. Alex, great to hear you loved this as much as me, I was afraid that the Q and A session with Glazer and his producer after my screening colored my views on the film so I wanted to wait a week to make sure that I loved the film as it stands alone. Sure enough it never faded in my memory or lessened in my mind, a great mind trip through and through, glad to see we both agree on this one. Both Johansson's and Glazers finest hours. Definitely not the movie you'd expect where she bares it all, not objectified in the least. Can't wait for Enemy to come out On Demand or DVD, I know you just cannot stop singing its praises. Good stuff this year thus far!

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    1. Hell yeah man, been a damn fine year already. Can't wait to see what else is in store.

      Under the Skin hasn't dared to leave my mind since the moment I saw it. I bet the Glazer Q&A offered some great insight into the film, which is always such a joy for films that you love. Thanks for the comment, Jeff!

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  13. I can't wait to see this one, but I kinda worry - I read the book and it has so much substance, so many thought provoking ideas. Granted some of that may not be possible to adapt (she interacts with the member of her race - they are covered with fur, have four legs and a tail - one of the more interesting ideas in the book is that she was altered to look like human, essentially having part of her body removed and being mutilated) but still the themes and scenes there would look so great on screen and we have so few thought provoking movies these days.

    This seems like something inspired by the book, something to experience rather than think about. I think I may like the result but a part of me will be saddened it's not more like the book. A trap, I guess, with knowing a source material :)

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    1. That's always the hardest part about enjoying a book that has been adapted. I haven't read Under the Skin (just bought it, though - gonna start soon), but Glazer has said his film is at times a loose adaptation (there's no religion in the film, for example). Faber was really happy with the flick, for whatever that's worth. But at the end of the day, we're here to judge the movie. And as a film, Under the Skin is bordering on being a masterpiece. Fuckin' loved it.

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  14. Just came back from watching the film and was totally blown away. The phrase "unlike anything I’ve seen" couldn't fit any more perfectly into "Under the skin", man. Because whether or not audiences are going to follow the mysterious brilliance of Jonathan Glazer's latest masterpiece, it's certainly unlike anything that's ever been done in the history of cinema. In the same way Scarlett Johansson's alien character seduces her victims, the film manages to lure you and take you on a journey you're not going to forget. It forces you to look on the movie screen in a lot different way. It takes cinema to another level, far away from what you've known until now as "a movie experience". It's one of the most refreshing, innovative, subversive, intelligent, disturbing, hypnotic, compex, weird, dark, radical, unclassifiable, visually mesmerizing and thematically rich films I've seen in my whole life. It's shockingly brilliant. A film for the ages. Scarlett Johansson gives an iconic performance that surpasses anything she's ever done. I wish I could find the right words, Alex, to describe how in awe I am in front of this masterful film and the genius of Jonathan Glazer's and Scarlett Johansson's work here. I feel like I can't, man. Because I just can't hold my excitement!!! This is the film I've been waiting for years, can you imagine? Years!!! It's a wonder of a film, that's what it is. It's an artistic triumph of the highest level. Believe me when I say that I rank "Under the skin" among the 50 best films of all time. I mean, this is why we go to the movies, right? To be intrigued and fascinated and inspired in a way like this. Glazer goes "under the skin" of modern cinema to reveal a whole another universe. A universe of daring ideas, experimental freshness, thought-provoking narrative, images that burrows into your mind and refuses to leave.

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    1. Dude, I LOVE your enthusiasm! The more I think about this one, the more I fully agree with you. If it manages to find a lasting audience (and please let it), then it could literally change the game. I haven’t seen this revelatory of a film in many, many years. Surely one of the most thematically rich films of my life as well.

      And yep, Under the Skin is precisely why we go to the movies. It’s the true, real, deep film experience that no other art form can touch. What a great fuckin’ ride this flick was. I can't wait to revisit it again and again.

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  15. Lovely review! I'd rate it a little lower than you, but I still really enjoyed it. It was an interesting take on the 'fish out of water' idea. Johansson was extraordinary, I love the brave and exciting career decisions she's making lately (apart from Lucy which looks terrible).

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    1. Thanks man! I too love the new risks she's taking in her career. Lucy doesn't look very good to me either, but it's great that she makes room for stellar indies.

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  16. Oh my god, I cannot believe they filmed it like that! Must have been frustrating to get the no-s. My expectations were high enough knowing the premise and that Scarlett Johansson was in the lead, but this is nothing short of amazing. Great review, Alex, I can't wait to see it!

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    1. Thanks so much! It really takes a lot of balls and a ton of patience to film a movie this way. Makes me respect the film that much more. Amazing.

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