A voluptuous woman of unknown origin (Scarlett Johansson) combs the highways in search of isolated or forsaken men, luring a succession of lost souls into an otherworldly lair. They are seduced, stripped of their humanity, and never heard from again. Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin examines human experience from the perspective of an unforgettable heroine who grows too comfortable in her borrowed skin, until she is abducted into humanity with devastating results.
The gripping nature of Jonathan Glazer's 'Under the Skin' is something of an enigma. There's this unseen underlying tension that he keeps driving at, but no exposition to go on. We know what we know, and that's very little. Scarlett Johansson is something. We never know her name, or if she has a name, or if she is really a she. Though, we're to assume that she is a "She." Not so much in the essence of what it means to be a female, but working more like a black widow. Consuming males, with little remorse, recourse, or reason. It's all so strange, so odd, so complex, and so compelling that it makes 'Under the Skin' one of the year's best.
Having not read the novel, I can't comment on how it compares to the film. Though, I believe other colleagues who have said that he novel is nothing like the movie. Since, if it was, the novel would be filled with blank pages one would think. That's because 'Under the Skin' is so visual. Glazer works stunningly with odd visuals, which reflexively recall names like Hitchcock and Kubrick. With the complete lack of "why," we're left to figure out exactly what it all means with the visual and auditory clues provided.
Johansson is the black widow. She's shown stripping a nearly lifeless lookalike at the beginning. Taking clothes, pants, shirts, and shoes. She's clinical and uncaring. Something happened to this other one and a new one has come to take her place. She puts on the clothes, hops in a sterile van, and begins cruising the Scottish countryside for lonely men.
Knowing that the men she picks up had no idea they were in a movie when they got into the van adds something else to the film. A societal double standard. Women would most likely be wary of getting into a van with a man who's cruising around asking women if they want rides. Put an attractive woman in the driver's seat, no matter how dangerous, and men jump in without a second thought.
This is Johansson's best work within her stellar career. It's right up there with her voice work in 'Her.' Here she's mysterious, and sultry. A perfect ideal of what men might follow, willingly, to their utter demise.
She brings them to dilapidated buildings, which open into endless black rooms. She walks slowly backward, the men follow. Mica Levi's score provides an unsettling backdrop to whatever it is that we're witnessing. The men don't appear to be afraid, even when they start sinking, slowly, into tar-like goo. They're fixated on her. It's fascinating and freaky all at the same time. We dread what's happening, but we have no idea why. Perhaps that's why it fills us with so much horror. We have no idea what's happening, but it's happening and everyone is powerless to stop it.
There is a sequence in 'Under the Skin' that will be forever burned into my memory. For good, or bad, it's there and it's never going away. It's one of the most chilling, cold, inhumane, and perfectly constructed sequences I've ever seen. It's known as the Beach Scene. You'll know it when you see it. It's something that must simply be experienced, so the whole weight of it can slam against you. The cinematic equivalent of driving your car into a wall.
We start innocuously enough, with a woman driving a van, trolling for men. Once the end arrives, we realize that Glazer has led us down the same path each of these men take. A hypnotic journey of bewilderment and terror. He's trapped us, but we're strangely willing to follow him down into the blackness. And, Her. Mostly Her.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a pretty bare bones release. Lionsgate has given 'Under the Skin' a 25GB Blu-ray Disc. It comes with a UltraViolet Digital Code and a slipcover. That's it. It's marked as being a Region A only release.
The video presentation is a mixed bag, simply because the source is all over the place. For much of the movie Glazer shoots with a standard HD camera, but the car scenes are filmed with hidden Go Pro-like cameras. This provides a pretty stark disparity in quality between the two. The hidden camera footage doesn't treat black areas with kindness. At times, they're crushing and shadows gobble up detail. Though, the rest of the movie – besides one or two trouble spots – looks great.
Whenever a standard film camera is being used, the visuals are pretty stunning. Black areas are nice and dark. The oily tar shines ever so slightly with light reflections as the men sink down into it. There are moments of colorful beauty too. Greens, reds, blues, and gold all appear in darker shades of themselves. All clear, all strong. Detail is very convincing from extreme close-ups on Johansson's face to the wide shots of the Scottish countryside. There are moments where we get super-wide shots, with one small moving part – someone walking or a speeding motorcycle racing across the screen – that are wonderfully rendered. The detail in these scenes is exquisite.
There are a couple moments, however, that are troublesome. These moments all happen around the same time. As one of the men sinks into the goo, he looks up. He sees a light shining through the blackness. The light causes extreme, noticeable banding which I don't remember being present in the theatrical presentation. It's really the only noticeable artifact that could've been avoided. The other anomalies are present in the hidden camera footage which is as good as it's going to get really.
I'm going to gush over 'Under the Skin's sound design. Just be aware of that right up front. It's the most engaging, challenging, and nuanced sound mix since 'Upstream Color.' It's an audio mix that isn't just noise. There's so much going on here. So many unusual sounds which all, in a way, help us gain focus on the ever-blurry picture we're presented with.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (not going to lie, I was hoping that Lionsgate would pull out one of their 7.1 mixes for this) is especially kind to Mica Levi's haunting score. Those eerie violin strings. The way the music permeates every channel. It's all so perfectly crafted to provide an experience unlike anything else. The dialogue, granted, is tough to ascertain. The Scottish accents are very heavy, and at times impenetrable. I had a tough time understanding the men the first time I saw it in the theater, same thing happened this time around. Truthfully, I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what they were saying. Not because there was a clarity issue, but because I'm just not used to following along with such thick Scottish accents.
The surround channels are alive with the movie's score, along with a host of other ambient sound. Since there isn't much to go on with exposition, ears might be more adept at picking up any sort of clues offered up by the mix itself. City streets, parties, crowded sidewalks, pouring rain, it's all captured expertly in the surrounds. Pans are silky smooth. Listen as bullet bikes shoot across the frame, as their high-pitched engine echoes over the Scottish hills. I loved this mix.
Beautiful, frightening, challenging. I could go on and on, but 'Under the Skin' is all that and more. It truly is something to be marveled at, thought about, dissected, revisited, and thought about some more. It's transfixing in its haunting allure. A wholly original film that says so little, but leaves such indelible impressions. A movie that never thinks less of its audience. There's no need to spell out what's happening because all we can do is witness it and fill in the gaps with our imaginations.
With strong video and some stellar audio, 'Under the Skin' comes highly recommended. One of the best films of 2014.