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Movie Review: “Under the Skin”

Movie Review: “Under the Skin”
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BY ALISON BAILES

Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” draws on themes from classic sci-fi and horror films to deliver a moody, intense tale of alien abduction and killing. A sense of estrangement between the audience and screen is heightened by the hypnotic, other-worldly score by first time composer Mica Levi.

And the music is important as there is very little dialogue in this taut, concise thriller. Glazer achieves the stifling creepiness by making his protagonist, a sultry Scarlett Johansson, a woman of few words, but myriad come-hither looks and alluring body language. It’s clear early on that the character has some kind of strange agenda, but it’s not exactly explicit what she is up to as she cruises the streets of Glasgow in a large van. Every so often she spies a lone male and approaches him, rolling down the window to make innocent inquiries about directions. With perfect flat English inflections, she determines whether the man is single and without family ties. He is then offered a ride, which he is only too happy to accept…..never to be heard from again.

It’s an interesting twist on the male predator/serial killer character that we see so often in our horror films and I couldn’t help but marvel at how the role reversal played out. The men are excited by her attention and without an ounce of suspicion or fear.  And what could they fear from a small female who is lost in the big city? But this one is different, and after being led to an abandoned building, the men meet a naked fate far different than what they were hoping for.

Glazer films the seduction scene with minimalist simplicity. No explanation is given for what becomes of these men as they are suspended in a spectral liquid. The most horrific moment comes when a new victim lays his still comprehending eyes on a prior conquest. The whole time Levi’s eerie, discordant music adds to our squirming discomfort.

Many of the scenes in the city streets were filmed with hidden cameras and with Johansson glammed down in a black wig. Several men were unsuspecting participants as they give helpful road directions. (They later signed release forms). This approach gives the film a docu-drama-like feel as many scenes play out in real time with natural chitchat in the place of scripted dialogue. Glazer co-wrote the screenplay with Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s novel.

Casting Johansson as the mysterious femme fatale also plays on her cinematic persona. Her sexuality is something she can’t hide (her voice alone dripped with sensuality in “Her”) and she even plays a character called Black Widow in the Avengers franchise.  But with her intelligent, feeling eyes, she manages here to show a progression in her character as the predator evolves within the confines of the story. An encounter with a seriously deformed man seems to affect her unduly. She starts to change from a cold-hearted killer to a sentient being and the film veers into existentialist inquiry.

Tonally the film is 180 degrees from Glazer’s first film in 2000 “Sexy Beast” (although that title befits Johansson here). It’s more in line with 2004’s “Birth” with Nicole Kidman. Glazer is a master of mood and of building suspense through imagery and heavy portent and has created a sly, devious monster movie that doesn’t hinge on special effects and gore. “Under the Skin” will creep into your subconscious and stay there, leaving a lingering suspicion that a monster may be lurking nearby, hidden in plain sight.

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