– by David Morgan-Brown
I remember when Terrence Malick’s opaque Tree of Life was released and most cinemas (including ones in Perth) had to put up a sign stating that it was a non-narrative film and customers couldn’t get a refund just because they didn’t get it. I feel the same should be done with Under the Skin, as those seeing it just to view ScarJo in the nude are going to be immensely disappointed and hugely disturbed. Under the Skin’s story is incredibly slight (a “woman” drives around Scotland in a van luring men with the promise of sex, but instead harvests their bodies), which means the 108 minute running time is spent on long, languidly-paced scenes of atmospheric character development, minimalistic surreal sequences featuring unusual special effects, and haunting moments of visual and audio terror that will permanently reside in the minds of viewers for years.
I’m not one to say that just because a film is different and singular doesn’t make it any good – it could just mean it’s pretentious and meandering. But Under the Skin’s bizarre structure and execution successfully set up this alien, sterile, clinical examination of human life and interaction that (for those who find themselves in tune with this dark piece of work) will prove to be emotionally annihilating.
From a visual and audio perspective, the film is a real achievement and practically flawless. The cinematography is cold, distant, and often very dark, but it helps build the unnerving mood. So too is the fantastic score, which creeps alongside the odd visuals. A few of the surreal moments (such as the opening scene) are unusual and hard-to-describe, but they evoke some of the creepier and more avant garde moments of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the birth of the universe sequence in the aforementioned Tree of Life. It’s strange that a film with such odd moments of art installation-esque moments could co-exist with scenes of on unsuspecting participants filmed with hidden cameras, yet it goes to prove that the director not only has an audacious style or two, but knows how to put it all together.
This filmmaker, Jonathon Glazer, said that he wish he could make his films just for himself and his group of friends and there’s definitely a feeling in a movie like this that he’s a filmmaker who would rather make a hundred people very happy with his film than a hundred thousand people moderately happy with his film. He is not content with leaving his audience feeling content and Under the Skin, which took almost a whole decade just to helm, is certainly a film that the director wanted to make on his own terms.
This is a dense movie experience that’s vague enough to have its audience members apply their own interpretations on to it. It is hardly ever explicit about its underlying intentions, yet if you’re willing to dive into its black water, there’s a wealth of thematic weight that concerns great universal issues. The matter of being human in this modern age, especially an attractive woman prone to all forms of abuse, is explored immensely and a number of these scenes are emotionally stirring in the most distressing way, yet also beautifully relatable. It’s at once an optimistic and pessimistic film about humans and to the director’s credit that these duel feelings are coherently expressed in this haunting, resonating, and memorable masterwork.