The 400 Word Review: Under the Skin

By Sean Collier

April 21, 2014

Hey, is that Scarlett Johansson with a really bad haircut?

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I haven’t read Michael Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, but I’m fairly confident that it could be described as weird. The plot concerns an alien who comes to earth, disguised as an attractive woman, to harvest Scottish men by seducing them.

As stories go, that’s unusual.

Few filmmakers would endeavor to adapt such a tale, but Jonathan Glazer is himself a bit of an unusual auteur. He succeeded in creating a recognizable, artful brand while making commercials and music videos, and his two previous features were daring, if of mixed quality (Sexy Beast was beloved, Birth provoked widespread head-scratching). So it makes sense that Glazer would be attracted to a work like Under the Skin. What’s refreshing and even delightful — if one can use that word in reference to such a disturbing film — is that Glazer did not water down or tame Faber’s book.

He made it way, way weirder.

Scarlett Johansson stars as the alien huntress (none of the characters have names). We’re introduced to her standing over a lifeless female body in an infinite white space, as she strips the corpse for clothing. She prowls suburban and rural Scotland for victims, who she profiles and — if they fit the bill — leads back to her lair, where she lures them into an underwater trap. I won’t spoil her reasons, but the scene in which they are revealed is staggering.

Under the Skin offers very little dialogue, with a silent Johannson filling the screen in the majority of shots. She is excellent here; very subtle reactions provide the closest thing Under the Skin has to a sustained story, and Johansson tells that tale perfectly.

Quiet, curious and beautiful (if lethal), she is the perfect counterpart to the unchecked aggression behind the camera. Cinematographer Daniel Landin has composed a film full of lovely shots, but the rhythms and (especially) the sound of Under the Skin carry a Kubrickian intensity foreign to most contemporary filmmaking. I can’t think of another film so frequently jarring that also carried an almost hypnotic quality; the experience I had with this film can’t be compared to any other.


Some audiences will likely find it too obtuse, and there’s an argument to be made there; it certainly is more Eraserhead than Psycho. But for the patient and strong-willed viewer, the haunting images and troubling themes of Under the Skin will be unforgettable.

My Rating: 9/10
Aggregate Rating from 72/100



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