erik lundegaard

Under the Skin

Under the Skin (2014)


Walking to the Harvard Exit theater last Sunday my main thought was this: “Will ‘Under the Skin’ be my kind of arthouse film?” Based on the trailer I saw last month, I thought not. But I knew it would be a topic of conversation this spring. I knew it would turn up on top 10 lists at the end of the year. Critics would heap praise. And they have: 85% on Rotten Tomatoes.

What is my kind of arthouse film? Something with story. Something that’s not mostly mood or atmosphere. Something that resonates. In recent years, my kind of arthouse film includes “No,” “A Hijacking,” “Footnote,” and “Rust and Bone.” I go for “Drive,” not “Only God Forgives.” I loved “The Tree of Life” and was disappointed by “To the Wonder.”

Written byJonathan Glazer
Walter Campbell
Directed byJonathan Glazer
StarringScarlett Johansson
Jeremy McWilliams
Lynsey Taylor Mackay

“Under the Skin”? Not my kind of arthouse film.

It has moments of genuine human and extraterrestrial horror but it’s mostly mood and discordant soundtrack music and different shades of incomprehensibility.

The white dot

For a brief period in college, or maybe after college, I often saw human beings as if through alien eyes. What odd creatures, I’d think. These sticks to walk on, these sticks to grab with, that circular protuberance on top. It lasted, off and on, a few years. I think I thought I was being profound.

That’s the feeling throughout most of “Under the Skin”—viewing human beings through alien eyes—for the simple reason that we are viewing the world through alien eyes. Also because we’re in Scotland.

The movie begins in darkness. We get a few credits, then director Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) lets the screen go dark. He holds it, and holds it, and holds it. Gradually we hear noise—traffic? static?—before we get a white dot in the center of the screen. The Earth? The sun? The iris of an eye? A 1960s-era TV turned off? All of the above? Then we get the title.

There’s a man on a motorcycle. He picks up the body of a woman in a ravine and deposits her in a white van. Then we’re in an all-white, bright room, like in a 1970s sci-fi movie, and one woman, naked, is removing the clothes of the woman from the ravine. Then she puts her clothes on. The first naked woman is Scarlett Johansson, the woman from the ravine is ... a dead prostitute? The previous alien on earth? I assumed the latter since I knew ScarJo was an alien in this thing. But I could be wrong. Or right. Or who knows.

In the novel by Michael Faber on which the movie is based, the alien woman is named Isserley but Glazer doesn’t bother to name her. So what should we call her? ScarJo? Alien? Species? Because that’s what this is: an arthouse version of “Species” (from what I understand of “Species”): a hot alien lures men to their doom. In the novel, it’s for their meat. They’re a delicacy. Here? Who knows?

It’s a fantastic scene, though. She takes them to a home on the outskirts of town, and then they’re in an all-black room, as opposed to the earlier all-white rom, and she’s walking ahead, slowly removing her clothes. They follow, doing the same. Then they begin to sink in the water. Are they at a lake? No. And there’s something wrong with the water: it’s viscous. And she’s not sinking. The first man we see—a man without family, a man who won’t be missed: that’s ScarJo’s m.o.—simply disappears beneath the smooth black surface and we don’t know what happens to him. We stay with the second man, and watch as he watches ScarJo walk back above him while he remains underwater. Is it underwater? Is it water? He looks around. He’s not panicking. Not yet. It’s like in a dream that hasn’t become a nightmare. Yet. He sees another man, the first man, naked but bloated, and slowly, with the painful, takes-forever-to-get-there movements of a dream, reaches out to the bloated man, even as the bloated man seems to pull back. Is he pulling back? His skin ripples. Then it’s like a popped balloon. There’s a fury of movement, and when it stops he’s just skin floating in the ether.

It’s a great, creepy scene, and it’s followed, from what I remember, by blood being channeled somewhere? Harvested? Sluiced? Like in a slaughterhouse? But we don’t know where or what it means.

There’s another great scene of genuine horror, but oddly it’s disconnected from ScarJo, or connected only in her imperviousness to its horror.

She’s walking along the beach, the cold, rocky coastline of Scotland, where a young man in a wetsuit emerges from the water. She talks to him, flirts with him in that dazed, extraterrestrial way she has. Nearby a couple with an infant is having a ... picnic? Their dog is in the water. Then panic, crisis. Now the woman is in the water—trying to rescue the dog?—and her husband follows her in, and the man in the wetsuit follows him to drag him out. To save him. Except he goes back, while the heroics have exhausted the man in the wetsuit. He lays prone on the beach. So ScarJo walked up to him, looks around, grabs a heavy rock, and bashes his head. Then she drags him away. Later she returns to retrieve a piece of clothing. By this time it’s evening, it’s growing cold and dark, and the infant, 18 months old, is alone and crying, even as high tide approaches. As the baby keeps crying, ScarJo walks up, picks up the clothing, and walks away. The baby remains. Soon it will be dead. It’s the helpless, abandoned.

Do these cries eventually get to ScarJo? Is it that, slowly, ScarJo is beginning to see human beings, her prey, as more than just meat? She encounters all kinds: the self-sacrificing swimmer; a pack of hooligans who threaten her in her van. There’s men who help, men who hurt. And men who are hurt.

The last man we see her pick up is disfigured. The actor who plays him, Adam Pearson, suffers from neurofibromatosis, which causes non-cancerous tumors to grow on the body. His tumors grow on his face, and his character is on his way to the grocery store—a lonely, disconnected man—when she pulls up beside him and talks to him. You can see, in his reaction, a disbelief. He’s waiting for the moment she’ll be horrified by his appearance but she never is. She probably can’t tell the difference. It’s probably all the same to her. So we get the scene again: in the house, disrobing, leading him on, as he sinks beneath the surface. Then she puts her clothes back on and gets ready to leave the house. Then he’s there again. And they both leave the house.

Did the system reject him for his disfigurement? Did she let him go? Because she’s beginning to feel for these creature? Us creatures? We watch as he’s being pursued by the man on the motorcycle, whom as I think of as the alien version of The Wolf, Harvey Keitel’s character in “Pulp Fiction.” He’s the cleanup crew. And he stuns the disfigured man, deposits him in a car trunk, drives off. Then he goes looking for ScarJo.

What is she doing? She’s trying a piece of cake. She looks at it, cuts off a piece of it with her fork, lifts the piece to her mouth and deposits it in there. Then she gags it out.

For most of the movie we know what she’s doing; for the rest, we don’t. She’s lost, I suppose. Like E.T. Has she failed in her mission? Has she gone over to the other side? Our side? She started out predator and now she’s prey. Maybe that’s all there is. She’s walking in the cold drizzle without a coat and a man urges her over to his bus stop. He takes her home. To take advantage? No, he makes her tea. Later, he attempts sex. Later still, she’s in the woods being pursued by a logger who wants to rape her. But in tearing her clothes, he tears her skin and sees what she is. So do we. She’s all shiny black beneath the ScarJo outfit. Then the logger returns, pours gasoline on her, and lights the match. She runs out of the woods on fire and falls to her knees. We watch the smoke rise. We watch the snow fall. We watch the credits roll.

Incomplete communication

Norman Mailer once said that art depends upon incomplete communication so the audience can respond “with their own creative act of the imagination, that small leap of the faculties which leaves one an increment more exceptional than when one began.” But there’s incomplete and there’s incomplete, and I suppose my incomplete isn’t necessarily yours. Some may have thought “The Tree of Life” incomplete. They might have wondered why go from Texas in the 1950s to the birth of time and the creation of life on earth and then the extinction of the dinosaurs, but that made sense to me. The main characters in the movie are questioning why God lets horrible things happen—this boy burned, this son killed—so writer-director Terrence Malick gives perspective. God let entire species go extinct and you’re asking Him about a fire? There was enough there for me to complete the communication.

Here, there’s not. “Under the Skin” is a moody piece about an alien cultivating humans in a borough of Scotland (for some purpose), who stops doing that (for some reason), and whose story plays out in this inconsequential way.

Other perpsectives are welcome.

—April 22, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard