Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) may be considered one of the more interesting filmmakers working today. But in his new thriller, UNDER THE SKIN starring Scarlett Johansson, the most fascinating element is that in his attempt to create an organic cinematic statement with an accessible heroine, he ultimately fails to connect with the audience.
Which is frustrating to note since the premise alone is enough to clench viewers. Johansson stars as a newly adapted human in Scotland who sheds her alien form and embarks on a nightly predatory mission to strip unsuspecting men of their humanity by divesting them of their skin. Why? Presumably so she, whose name remains anonymous in the film, can gain more strength. But that's never fully confirmed in the film. It may be safe to assume she does this act because it may be how she gets along on whichever planet she's from. Or, maybe she is in fact the villain with no other ulterior motives but to rule humanity. We may never know.
But however we feel about her is secondary to how Glazer is mesmerized by her, so much so that he conceals the camera from the actors in order to establish a more natural scene. No matter how congested and quick-paced the sequence is, the actors are unaware of where the cameras are (some of them reportedly so tiny that they have to be expertly placed) and therefore guide the film. That said, we see only what Johansson sees from her point of view, which unfortunately escapes a much needed third person peripheral and leaves several questions unanswered. In fact, much of the film prompts a series of unanswered questions that take away from it.
For instance, why is the story set in Scotland? The question only nags because Johansson is obviously an American who's tasked with trying to understand an unidentified character that also resides in Scotland, which means she has to don an accent. Which further distracts from her performance because she isn't quite consistent with it (I read that Johansson studied the accent only a few days before production began, which may explain why). I haven't read Michel Faber's book of the same name, upon which the film is based, but since Glazer admits to taking liberties with the film adaptation, editing this setting may have made it less distracting.
Another pesky question in the story is the addition of a similar John Doe-type character (played by British Grand Prix racer Jeremy MCWilliams) who's apparently there to assist Johansson's character by helping her collect bodies. He is also the cleaner whenever anything goes wrong. It's unclear whether he is an alien as well, or why he agrees to help her out. The two rarely speak but seem to have a mutual understanding and appreciation of the process. But we still do not.
UNDER THE SKIN introduces many themes, such as solitude, control, power and (some may argue) feminism, but we can't really get attached to any of them because Johansson's character is by her own nature not well formed. She's there, but not really settled enough to authorized any original function of her own. Though she's a bit of a head-scratcher, Johansson is fully committed to making her a rounded character, however not nearly as effectively as she did in last year's Her.
The film becomes more fleshed out in its third act, however, when she is lured into domestication by a passerby presumably seeking a wife type for his house. Whether it is out of exhaustion of prey or her nomadic lifestyle, our heroine complies with the stranger, whose dominance ultimately sends her running in the opposite direction, literally. In a luscious, energetic series of events, we see Johansson diving into a forest for solitude only to meet a surprising demise.
Like much of the film, this final entry poses more questions than answers, but provokes actual thought as well. Has she been running from something this whole time? Is this experience all a dream? Can an alien have a conscious, even if said alien is a human?
It's disappointing that the bulk of the film isn't as evocative. UNDER THE SKIN is as sloppy as it is bold and may quickly bore some with its evasive themes. But at its best it is experimental and may succeed at inspiring deep discussions from those who seek to apply messages to a film that may in fact have no message at all. That could be its greatest trick.
Rating: C (**1/2 out of *****)
UNDER THE SKIN comes to theaters in New York and Los Angeles Friday, April 4th, and opens everywhere April 11th.