2013 Toronto Film Festival

'Under the Skin' (2013) Movie Review - Toronto Film Festival

An existential experiment that's fun to unpack, but that's about it

Under the Skin movie review
Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin
Photo: A24

As far as I can tell, the highly existential experiment known as Under the Skin is essentially a fish out of water story and the reaction of said fish and the school in which she's trying to swim. In this case the "fish" is an extraterrestrial being and the "school" in which she swims is humanity as a whole, with humanity represented by the people of Scotland.

'Under the Skin'
Grade: C+

Under the Skin"Under the Skin" is a A24 release, directed by and is rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language. The running time is .

The cast includes and .

For more information on this film including pictures, trailers and a detailed synopsis .

This, still, is an oversimplification as writer/director Jonathan Glazer (along with co-writer Walter Campbell) have loosely adapted Michel Faber's 2000 novel into a story of an alien being come to Earth to harvest humans for sustenance and, in the process, finds compassion for her victims only to find with compassion comes injury. This, at least, is my interpretation of what I see as a highly cynical look at humanity, our judgment of others and mistreatment of those we don't understand.

Told through the eyes of an alien being (played by Scarlett Johansson), we're introduced to the film's protagonist through a series of inexplicable images that eventually come to reveal a human eye, perhaps in an attempt to create a new way of looking at the world. Or at least suggesting the audience should attempt to look at the world through the eyes of the soon-to-be-revealed protagonist (Johansson), introduced as she strips the limp and lifeless body of her doppelgänger. A single tear rolls down the cheek of the now naked body as her double walks out of view wearing her clothes.

We next see this nameless being driving the streets of Scotland, stopping along the side of the road, asking passersby for directions and questioning some further: "Where are you going? Do you have family? Want a lift?" Smartly she picks up passengers that live alone or are heading somewhere without anyone's knowledge. Assuming they will soon be having sex with this beautiful woman, the strangers agree to a lift and follow her willingly into a decrepit home.

She lures them in with her sexuality as she walks across an endless black mass, removing her clothes along the way. The men strip as they follow only to slowly sink into the black goo at their feet, never to be heard from again. Could this be a commentary on society's objectification of women and the one-track male mind?

Every night she trolls the streets of Scotland, a location choice I also find interesting. Even though Farber's original story was set in Scotland it feels like Glazer has used it to further advantage, ensuring the people the woman comes into contact with all speak with a heavy, nearly indecipherable Scottish accent. I interpreted this as a symbol of misunderstood familiarity. While we recognize the words as English, it's difficult and sometimes impossible to fully understand what is being said. By doing this Glazer turns the audience into active participants, though, if this was actually his intent, it would only work with native English speakers as Scotsman that understand what's being said or foreign audiences reading subtitles wouldn't have a similar experience. My theory remains unproven... for now.

The film also seems to be making a commentary on society's lack of attention to our youth, crying out for help. One scene finds the woman standing on a beach as heavy surf pounds into shore. A man rushes into the water to save his wife, leaving their baby on shore. The baby wails loudly, but the woman pays the child no attention as it's left alone, presumably to die.

The alien's last victim proves to be her downfall, refusing to treat him the way she has the others, a decision that results in the film's final act, which I will leave for interested parties to decipher for themselves.

With all of that said, Glazer makes none of this apparent as it took me a solid 12 hours just to unpack this much and if the review comes across as confusing there's good reason why, the film itself is far from straight forward and I had more fun trying to decipher it than actually watching it. For the first hour or so I was a willing participant, but I soon became weary of the experimental and distant nature of the story. The imagery is striking and beautiful, but the story needed a little something more.

Johansson does her best to hold our attention on her own, but the narrative around her and dark nature of each and every scene makes it hard to remain invested for the duration. There's an organic nature to the whole thing as Mica Levi's score roars, rumbles, knocks and breathes, almost having a life of its own while Daniel Landin's cinematography captures the scene in murky shadows and grey fog. Scenes could be chosen to play in snippets on museum walls, but as a feature film it's kept at arm's length.

I'm happy to have seen Under the Skin, but any future viewings will most likely necessitate a Blu-ray commentary track, otherwise I don't really see the point.

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  • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

    I wasn't surprised by the low grade as the people who saw the screening I saw at Telluride began walking out. Only me and 2 others remained.

    I gave the film a D+

    • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

      Mainly because having read the book, they left a lot of the most fascinating parts out. Though Glazer said he was going for a different approach, the approach he went with put the style over the substance, and for me that is a disappointing step with something that could've been so much more.

      Johansson tried, but I feel someone like Olivia Wilde could've down padded this performance.

    • alsonamedbort

      I definitely believe that you have seen the film.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    'Humanity represented by the people of Scotland'.................well, there's something I never thought I would read of my locale.

    It sounds curiously interesting though. As it's set in Scotland it might get a heavier theatrical push here than a films of this nature orinarily would. I'll need to have a look otherwise it will need to be a rental.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

      I like the bit where she tempts the locals with a battered mars bar (oh God please don't be offended haha)

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

        Nah, I've never had one. I have my limits even on my own turf.

        • http://www.ohbrotherwhereartthougifts.com andyluvsfilms

          Have you watched this film yet? I loved it. it is super chilling and at present my #3 of the year.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    Despite being flawed I think it deserves praise for being different and also some for SJ who's been coasting for some time now in my opinion.

    • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

      Not so much Johansson in my opinion. Outside of some cold pouty glares she's not exactly doing much. Her word count is limited (which my friend joked was a plus as he doesn't like her voice).

      I think that's her downfall, if she's handed long winded monologues she doesn't deliver, but she's good at glaring. So I don't think that really counts as a great performance.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

        She definitely needs a meaty role so we can actually see what she can do.

        • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

          One where the emoting can match the dialogue, which she seems to struggle at, in my opinion.

          Take Match Point. High praise for a bit of a mediocre performance. Granted, this was in the "Lost in Translation" era, but she seems to be tapping into that one performance every time now. Compared to the performance of Rhys Meyers, Johansson I feel didn't earn the Golden Globe nom.

          Here, in UTS, it's just looks. Cold stares. It's not a performance. If it were juggled with more plot (which it lacked) and dialogue, perhaps it could have been her best performance. But for now, Johansson is still a long way away from an Oscar nom.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

            I didn't actually find Rhys Meyers to be all that impressive in Match Point I have to say. The fatal flaw in that entire movie is I could never buy based on his performance how his character had two women infatuated with him. There was zero charisma involved.

            But I always felt there was a deal of improvisation in that film that SJ wasn't good at............I also felt this with her in Vicki Christina Barcelona and didn't think she was good in that either. It makes me wonder if she's simply better when given a script.

            Although in all truth I think her entire 'reputation' is built off those two back to back 2003 films that sometimes seem to have been more of a fluke than anything else.

            • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

              Well, with Rhys Meyers, you saw an actor doing the best he could. Johansson walked in, gave not really any effort (in a bad way) and received the praises. Perhaps because it was her most mature role to date at the time, but looking back at the scene with her and Chris towards the end, it sounded like she was playing...Scarlett Johansson.

              Actresses like Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence are who Johansson could have been: honing great performances at a young age. Lawrence blew the roof off with Playbook, while Johansson received a modest amount of praise. Potential that disappeared into mediocrity.

              Johansson should be given scripts that fit her acting style: scripts for romantic comedies and dramas, not period pieces and crime thrillers. The Other Boleyn Girl was something that required dedication and understanding of the era. Johansson admitted in an interview alongside Natalie Portman (who said she dug deep into the character) that she only used the script. No research to fully envelope herself in the performance.

              Now, she isn't terrible, far from it, but a majority of her roles were just mediocre. She was good in Translation, Ghost World, The Avengers and The Nanny Diaries. But in films like Boleyn Girl, Black Dahlia and Match Point, she is the weakest link in the chain.

              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

                I'd agree on Lawrence now that I've seen some more of her work, including Playbook but I'm not really a big fan of Stone yet. She's pleasant enough but I've not been blown away by anything she's done so far.

                I've not seen Boleyn but the one thing that comes to mind immediately is that in Dahlia and Point she's playing to her sexual persona and image (albeit a little differently in each) whereas in others she isn't.

          • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

            I think ScarJo is a decent actress, I just think she needs better scripts. She's better fit in romantic comedies more than dramas IMO. She was great in both Lost in Translation & The Other Boleyn Girl, I thought she was pretty good in Scoop, decent in both Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona & ok in the Avengers. Haven't seen Ghost World but heard she's good in it.

            Yeah, I just don't think dramas fit her profile, she's seems to be at her best in comedies. She looks pretty good in Don Jon so that's good. Now, about that Oscar nom...I agree with you, she's a long way from it but if she's given a really good script, I think she'll knock it out the park and she could get finally get her first Oscar nom.

            • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom

              The Other Boleyn Girl kinda shit the bed in its presentation. British actresses I feel should have played the part. Natalie Dormer and Carey Mulligan for example.

              Major issue with Johansson is her voice. She always sounds bored. She can look mad, but sound bored. Look happy, but sound bored. As I said before, her performances all seem to be her character from Lost in Translation. Because she was acclaimed for that, she thinks that's her key to being great. Match Point kinda showed she was a little young. She was 19 at the time of filming and it really showed. Again, mainly, the voice. She said a lot of her lines in the wrong context. That's why I feel her acting style is more suitable in the likes of Nanny Diaries and He's Just Not That Into You.

              Overall, not a bad caress, but she is vastly overrated.

              • http://www.thecasualheroes.com/ Grissom


              • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

                I understand.

  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Nice review, Brad. I came away with the same feelings, more or less. Thought it was a piece that really needed the viewer to be active after the process. While watching it, especially the first half, I was driven mad by the seemingly deliberately slow pace and style of stroytelling. I enjoyed the last act far more as it was more action driven - and the story moves out of its routine into something different - which was refreshing.

    With that said, after watching it I couldn't stop thinking about it and the moments from it. There is a lot to decipher. While the basic message is very clear, there are many other motifs and themes embedded into it. A lot is being said with not much actually being said. It's refreshing, but as I had mentioned, not too enjoyable to actually get through.

  • http://letterboxd.com/criterion10/ Criterion10

    I think that this film will have the same effect on me that a film like Upstream Color had, which is that it was visually stunning yet emotionally hollow.

    When experimental cinema is done right, it can truly be great (see films like Eraserhead, Gummo, etc.). I think what a lot of the current experimental filmmakers fail to realize is that style and imagery is not the only component of an experimental film. The audience needs to find some way to make an emotional connection with the film, or else it will fall flat on its face.

    All that being said, I did really like Jonathan Glazer's first film, Sexy Beast.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HelloKitty/ Hello Kitty

    Sigh. It could have been so much more. In the book she hardly looked human but with a gigantic pair of tits, no one noticed.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      That's interesting, I'm not sure you could make the film like that since we are third party viewers, but it would have made it interesting.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/sofasobad/ sofasobad

    Brad, when I saw True Grit I became convinced that the setting had been deliberately chosen so the people of Scotland (and indeed England) - even those of us who aren't actually aliens - wouldn't be able to fathom a word that was said...

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      Nice one!

      Sometimes I wait for home video release to watch certain movies, just so I can have the subtitles...

      (P.S. I'm American and I could barely understand Bridges in True Grit).

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Anna/ Anna

    I can not wait to watch this!!!

    I loved Glazer's previous works. I can't believe it's been almost 10 years since his last movie!!
    Also, so nice to see Scarlett finally playing daring roles. I always thought she had the talent, she just need good directors...