Monday, September 29, 2014

Under the Skin review

"Under the Skin" takes its time. Its pacing is deliberate. It's an unforgiving film. If you watched the trailers, you should have an idea of what you're in for, but really, there's really no other movie like this. The best way to describe it is "Eraserhead meets 2001." So, if you like both those movies, you may be able to stomach "Under the Skin," but for many others, it won't be their cup of tea.

This is a movie that doesn't belabor its point. It doesn't spell everything out for you. Scarlett Johansson plays an alien that seduces strange, lonely men and, quite literally, leads them into oblivion. That's the only way I can describe what happens to them. That doesn't really spoil anything for you, so don't worry.

As I describe the film, it must be noted that none of that is really spelled out or explained. There really isn't a wholly logical, reasonable explanation for what she's doing. The only thing we have is what we see. This is a strictly visual movie. There's dialogue, sure, but most of the dialogue (if not all) is inconsequential to what's happening from a visual standpoint. So, if you can follow a movie visually, you should be able to get along with the film just fine... unfortunately, that doesn't really describe the majority of the general audience.

Even some refine cineastes may balk at this movie because so many people have forgotten what movies were really supposed to do, originally. A movie is really only supposed to tell its story visually. When we get close-ups of Scarlett's eyes and face. When we see her naked body lit up and surrounding by darkness, these visuals mean something. There's a man who drives a motorcycle who apparently runs the operation Scarlett Johansson's character is involved in, but they never talk. I can only infer that she follows his orders based on their behavior. For me, this is all very fascinating. I love a movie, and a director, that trusts its audiences implicitly and very clearly constructs his film from a visual standpoint. The most recent example of this is last year's "Upstream Color" by Shane Carruth.

"Upstream Color" was one of last year's great films. "Under the Skin" is one of the best films of this year. Yet the former has a 6.8 on IMDB and the latter has a 6.3. Very underwhelming ratings. And I consider IMDB's ratings to speak for the general moviegoing public. Maybe IMDB leans more towards fanboys and teenagers, but whoever saw Under the Skin collectively gave it a 6.3 rating. Now I don't expect everyone to like the film as much as I do, but it's telling to me that so many people just have no patience for a movie like this. Of the 35,000 votes on IMDB, over 3,000 viewers gave the movie a 1. I normally don't talk about or obsess over these details, but there's a reason why I'm doing it this time

Because I know the reason why most people (ok, most males) saw this movie. It's because Scarlett Johansson gets naked in it. That's it. I can guarantee you that's the sole reason. Now I have nothing against those who enjoy that kind of titillation, but it's actually fascinating in this case because "Under the Skin," to me, is a study on that type of titillation.

"Under the Skin" asks why. Why do men find Scarlett Johansson so attractive? Why is that so many of these lonely Scottish men are so willing to get into the van of a stranger? Why is it that they are so hooked on her face and her body and can't look away until they're submerged in a liquid they can't remove themselves from? Again, "Under the Skin" is not an outwardly feminist movie or anything like that, this is really just my interpretation. But for me, the context clues are most definitely there.

This film, in many ways, feels like a condemnation of the way men treat women. The males who populate this movie are horny, violent, desperate, lonely, angry. There's only one man who treats Scarlett's character fairly and he's one of the only ones who resists an ill-fated demise. It may seem cruel or unfair or mean to treat men this way, if it weren't so goddamn accurate and true. Again, most men saw this movie because they knew Scarlett Johansson would get naked. They are the strange, lonely men who get in the car! But as a result of watching this movie, they don't quite get what they want. Sure, she's naked a few times in the movie, but the audience has to wade through long takes with close-ups on Johansson's face. There are no sex scenes. There's lots of build up but no pay off. So, of course, the movie is repellent to them. And this is exemplified perfectly by a scene at the very end of the movie where the alien nearly gets raped by a man in the forest. A man who originally was helpful to her. But because she didn't give him what he wanted, the man reacted violently and tried to take what he wanted from her. When she didn't have the tools necessary for him to take what he wanted, he then... well, you'll have to see for yourself.

"Under the Skin" is a very bleak, yet very accurate look at today's society. It sheds men in a very unflattering light and you know what? We deserve it. Look at the way we treat beautiful young celebrity females who are constantly the object of our affection, whether it'd be on TV, the movies, magazines, music videos, whatever it is. We hack into their cell phones and post their photos all over the internet. Women are not safe. You could easily imagine a woman like Scarlett Johansson being constantly gawked at. This is an actress who had naked photos of herself plastered on the internet just a few years ago. We took something away from her that she spent her entire career trying to prevent us from seeing. And this movie is the perfect fucking response to that entire controversy. You want to see me naked? You want this? Well, go ahead and see it. But I'm not going to make it easy for you. And in this movie, I am the hunter, not you. There's something very empowering and quietly confident about Johansson's performance here. She doesn't have much dialogue, but there's a way about her, a natural on-screen charisma that is explored and turned on its head in this movie.

Of course, my interpretation of "Under the Skin" may not be shared with others. I haven't really read any other reviews of the film. But Jonathan Glazer, in my view, really made a work of art here. This is a movie that's worth examining. It's worth exploring in further viewings. And it contains one of the most disturbing and inexplicable scenes that I have seen in quite some time. I don't even think I scratched the surface with this review, but it's best you go into this movie as cold as possible. Don't worry about seeing ScarJo naked. Just watch the film. Let it unfold. Don't force it to make sense to you. I watched the movie over a week ago and many of these thoughts have come to me days after I saw it. I'm sure if I saw it again, I'd get even more out of it. We have to treasure movies like these. Movies that dare to explore, dare to examine the depths and ugliness of humanity without giving us any clear answers. Because, really, there is no clear answer as to why anything happens in this movie, but it doesn't matter. This isn't merely a movie you watch, it's a movie you feel. And when you can find yourself truly getting sucked into "Under the Skin," it's an experience unlike anything else.

Grade: A

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