I watched Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin on Friday morning. It is now Sunday morning, and I’m still tussling with what I think of it. That may be an indicator of the film’s complexity — or not. It isn’t that I don’t understand the film, at least to the degree that its wispy narrative can be understood. And it isn’t that I think the film is bad. On the contrary, I think it does a very good job of what it sets out to do. The question is whether or not I really care about what it does. Therein lies the problem. I don’t think I really do.
At first, I likened it to last year’s Upstream Color (a film I disliked intensely) with better production values, but then two people who liked that film and disliked Under the Skin said they were nothing alike. I’ve seen it compared to Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) — a film I love. I see where they’re getting the connections, but The Man Who Fell to Earth has a dramatic arc and characters we care about. Under the Skin has very little of the former and none of the latter. The Man Who Fell to Earth is finally a tragedy. Under the Skin is finally … well, nothing much except deliberately impenetrable, slightly depressing and vaguely creepy. However, a lot of my critical brethren think it’s the bee’s knees of art-movie profundity. Some people I know will think that, too. I am not a true believer.
This is not grounded in a dislike of filmmaker Glazer. I liked Sexy Beast (2000) well enough, and I think Birth (2004) is close to greatness. Under the Skin isn’t much like either of those. If pressed, I’d say it’s nearer to Birth, but that’s a stretch. Its story, pared to its basics, concerns some kind of alien (though I suppose it could be supernatural) life form (Scarlett Johansson) that prowls around Scotland — specifically, the Glasgow area — in a van searching for victims to seduce and do something barely comprehensible to. We see what she does more than once — she leads them into some black place where they are trapped beneath the surface of some black, oily substance that she can walk across. We never know what the point is, who she is or why she’s doing this. She rarely speaks. (When you’re an alien disguised as Scarlett Johansson, it requires little to lure men into your van.) The other characters don’t say much either, and since what they do say is usually in the thickest Glawegian accent, it’s mostly incomprehensible.
There is a vague dramatic structure — mostly concerning the alien apparently trying to become human. Unfortunately, it transpires that she is physically unequipped for most basic human functions. There is also a pretty much out-of-nowhere ending that doesn’t really settle anything except the fate of the alien. In the meantime, there are weird motorcyclists, like updates on Death’s henchmen in Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), who follow her. There’s a strange, almost touching, encounter with a man suffering from a disfiguring medical condition. But whether any of this adds up to anything of genuine note is going to be a very personal call. It is all certainly atmospheric and unsettling. Individual moments — like Johansson being swept up in a mob of women going clubbing — are marvelous. If I was still 17, I’d probably take the approach of, “I don’t understand the point so it must be art.” Maybe that’s the best approach, but I’m not ready to embrace it. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas