UNDER THE SKIN (2013, Film 4 / British Film Institute, UK/USA/Switzerland, 108 mins, Colour, 1.85:1, Dolby Digital, Cert: 15, Sci-Fi Thriller) ∗∗∗
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay, Dougie McConnell, Kevin McAlinden, D. Meade, Andrew Gorman, Joe Szula, Krystof Hádek, Roy Armstrong.
Producer: Nick Wechsler, James Wilson; Director: Jonathan Glazer; Writer: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell (Based on the novel by Michel Faber); Director of Photography: Daniel Landin; Music: Mica Levi; Film Editor: Paul Watts; Production Designer: Chris Oddy; Art Director: Martin McNee, Emer O’Sullivan; Costume Designer: Steven Noble.
An alien in the form of a voluptuous woman (Johansson) combs the highways of Scotland in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. There she seduces, strips and stores them in a dimensional trap. Then she takes pity on a deformed man, who she releases incurring the wrath of her male accomplice. She goes on the run and meets a drifter. Seemingly beginning to become aware of a soul within her human facade she becomes attracted to him. When she realises her alien biology precludes them from mating she escapes to a forest where further danger awaits.
To brand this film as unconventional would be an understatement. It is encouraging to see such challenging film-making in an era dominated by brainless blockbusters. The dense narrative, sparse dialogue and eerie soundtrack all serve to create an unsettling atmosphere. This is most notable in a scene on a beach where a toddler is left alone against the oncoming tide as his mother and father meet their fate whilst trying to rescue their dog, which has swum out to sea.
Johansson delivers an emotionally detached performance and yet still manages to create a seductive allure through her physicality. None of the human characters are given names but all the actors give credible and naturalistic performances. Watching the film makes the viewer feel voyeuristic rather than emotionally involved and as such its cold heart will alienate many. Despite the slowly unfolding story, I remained hooked until the rather disappointing conclusion, which left many of the interesting subtexts raised hanging in the air as if the filmmakers were merely asking questions rather than sharing a viewpoint.
The end result, therefore, is an impressively technical film, but one without a soul.