Director: Jonathan Glazer
Johansson plays a creature, from somewhere, who inhabits the body of a woman, whose cadaver is carried into the back of the van by her mysterious biker guardian. Inhabiting her form, she cruises the streets of Glasgow, finding lone young men and tempting them to get into the van with her. From there, it's unclear what she does to them, as their demise plays out through a series of abstract sequences in which they sink through black mirrored floors and become suspended, the life draining from them, leaving only their skin behind. Taking the opportunity where she can find it, the biker frequently has to clean up after her, removing any trace that she had anything to do with her victims. But when she encounters a heavily disfigured man, she feels compassion for the first time, letting him free before disappearing into the countryside, experiencing human emotions for the very first time.
A sequence on a beach, in which she leaves a family to drown and bludgeons a swimmer to death with a stone really underlines how inhumane this creature actually is. Throughout the film she stares at her victims, looks out at the city, watches the world happen around her and there is no compassion or comprehension of what it is to be these humans around her. So when she meets someone who inspires compassion in her, she is unable to understand the feelings she is suddenly aware of. She goes into shock. This change in character is where the film begins to lose its way, as the atmosphere its spent so long creating gives way to long mournful shots of the girl mooning about in countryside.
The abstract sequences are fascinating to watch. Jarring so much with the hyper-realism of Boal-esque Invisible Theatre/candid camera sections, the juxtaposition is strikingly beautiful. The deaths of the men, a river of blood, the illegible opening sequence and her transformation into the woman are all elegantly and boldly shot, uncompromising in their artistic vision... But your standard audience member would struggle with any of these. In fact I struggled with them at times. While I watched the film I found myself unable to concentrate, simply because there were moments that you feel like having a mental huff and refusing to persevere with it. In many respects it reminded me of Kill List, another British quasi-horror that fused elements of hyper-realism and surrealism. After watching that film, a friend commented that while I may not have enjoyed it, I will certainly never be able to forget it, which I would say is certainly true of Under The Skin too.
I can't help but wonder what Michel Faber will think of this "adaptation" of his book. Very little remains of the original source material and while people say some sequences channel Kubrick, I think they may just be abstract for abstract's sake. The point of 2001 and its abstract sequences is the gravity behind them all; they are signifying the beginnings of life, the start of humankind and society's future. Similarly, Terence Malick's Tree Of Life uses abstraction to contemplate over-arching themes of the question of our consequence. Under The Skin uses the same device but to very little consequence at all, so where these other and greater films succeed in inspiring awe and fascination, this does little more than simply confuse. I'll never forget Under The Skin, but it's not something I'll ever feel the need to watch again.