Under The Skin – Sex, Horror, Humanity

During one of the first book clubs, we discussed Michel Faber’s Under The Skin that was getting a movie. It was long delayed, but it will now finally hit cinemas here. We’ve seen it and all we can say is: You’re in for something truly remarkable.

In Under the Skin, there's often nothing but the actors. This is a screenshot.

In Under the Skin, there’s often nothing but the actors. This is a screenshot.

Jonathan Glazer. That’s the name of the director and screenplay writer of Under the Skin, the movie based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name. The book divided the members of the Uncanny Book-Club at the Voltaire back in February 2014. What everyone agreed on was that they would be very interested in seeing the movie, but at that point, it seemed highly unlikely that it would hit cinemas in Switzerland. The Romandie had it as a limited release a while ago and the Riffraff in Zürich seemed to be the best bet to show it.

But suddenly, it’s getting a big Kitag release, Kitag being the biggest cinema company Switzerland has. Amongst movie lovers they’re somewhat infamous due to their insistence on showing more dubbed movies and having the occasional weird scheduling, but with Under the Skin, they’ve really done well. So all criticism aside: Kitag, you did an excellent job on that.

That said, it’s time to get into the movie proper. Because whichever award Under the Skin gets, it deserved it.

Horror Done Right

Under the Skin lives off the inexplicable. While the book was some sort of commentary on vegetarianism and a whole lot of other things, the movie leaves all these things vague. Instead, Glazer’s movie opts to be surreal and disturbing in the best ways possible.

The story is that of Isserley, played by Scarlett Johansson in probably her best part to date, who roams the streets of Scotland in search for male hitchhikers that wouldn’t be missed. She then takes them to a secluded spot and seduces them. There’s never any actual sex, but the abstraction of it, followed by some of the most creative and therefore disturbing gore in recent cinema history.

As the plot progresses, it becomes obvious that Isserley doesn’t just deal with the issue of having to find more and more people to kill without them being discovered or missed, but she has her own personal demons to deal with:

  • She is very, very lonely.
  • She wonders if killing is the right thing to do.
  • Her boss, a mysterious motorcycle rider, is running a very tight ship and never leaves her too far off the leash. Isserley has no privacy.
  • Isserley has to pretend she’s human.
This is Scarlett Johansson not looking human.

This is Scarlett Johansson not looking human.

Because Isserley is not human. She’s an alien from some strange planet that we never learn too much about.

However, the real problems start when Isserley starts to not only feel like she needed some company, but apparently, she’s not meeting her quota. So the motorcycle rider goes looking for her.

Less Story, More Craftsmanship

What makes this movie outstanding is not the fact that its story is so gripping, but the fact that Jonathan Glazer doesn’t rely on neither established techniques in film nor on gimmicks. He’s taken the novel, read the story and expanded on the character of Isserley. Her being a tool of other people as well as the machinery she’s caught in that she can’t fully comprehend are the focus of her characterization at the expense of her being surgically altered to look human.

Isserley is in disguise, and it shows. Even though Scarlett Johansson looks like her usual self, she does her best – and she succeeds – at not being human. By the middle of the movie, her complete alienation at our Earth and all its inhabitants have become very obvious and believable.

The highlight of the movie, however, isn’t the superb acting of Johansson who’s basically the only major character with a speaking part in this, but the mood. Jonathan Glazer accomplishes this with two different techniques.

  • The unique and disturbing soundtrack
  • The phenomenal and bizarrely erotic as well as brutal scenes before Isserley kills her victims
This is not a particularly sexy scene, even though it features the #10 on FHM's Sexiest Women in 2014 List

This is not a particularly sexy scene, even though it features the #10 on FHM’s Sexiest Women in 2014 List

The soundtrack is permanent and often little less than a dissonant screeching and mashing of various instruments. It’s never obtrusive or overwhelming, but its being everywhere gets grating after a while. It’s not annoying, but unsettling, a kind of bastardization of music. It underlines the disturbing image that Isserley must have of our well as well as her frankly horrific job.

The clincher are the scenes after the abductions, though. Jonathan Glazer was a director of music videos and it really shows. It’s never quite explained how Isserley does it, but she manages to somehow hypnotize her victims. Or maybe it’s just a narrative device. Viewers will never know. Either way, it’s these scenes that make this more than remarkable. They’re surreal, scary and – frankly – brilliant.

These are also the scenes with the gore. It’s not the typical gore of people throwing around red syrup and jelly that are to double as brains that get splattered across the room. In Under the Skin, there’s only one moment of blood and it is very, very disturbing. Even people who don’t have issues with blood in movies and gore in general will have issues with it.

Another moment that sticks out is during another one of these strangely erotic scenes during which Isserley’s victims typically transform into grotesque caricatures of human beings. In a very quick and surprising moment, her victim turns into a floating sack of skin. No bones, no muscle, just an empty sack of skin. Very, very disturbing.

A Movie for Lovers of Film

Under the Skin is not a movie that can just be watched on a Friday night at the movies like other films. It’s something that needs its time to settle. It’s an accomplished but difficult to digest film. It’s disgusting, eerie, creepy, uncomfortably sexy and – most of all – very engaging in its own and unique way.

Still, if you’re interested in movies as a genre or simply want to see something that isn’t your everyday movie, then Under the Skin is for you. In fact, everyone should go see it just so that they can see what power movies have, what they can do and how narratives can work off the beaten path.

Under the Skin also shows that Scarlett Johansson is more than just a pretty face doing lighter roles. She proves that she can be ugly and haunting. Despite her being naked quite frequently in this film, it never comes across as gratuitous or even remotely sexy.

In the following trailer, you’ll hear some of the score and see some of the disturbingly awesome scenes that make this movie so extraordinary.

Under the Skin hits cinemas next Thursday, 14th of August, 2014.

About Dom

Possessing nigh-encyclopaedic knowledge when it comes to comic books and movies, Dom is one of the co-founders of the Uncanny Book-Club. He also enjoys movies, and going to the cinema.

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