Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Penny Thoughts ‘14—Under the Skin (2014) ***½

R, 108 min.
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Writers: Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer, Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson

“Under the Skin” is one of those cerebral sci-fi flicks that leave the majority of viewers cold. It’s meant to. I’m sure many people will go into this film expecting something like Scarlett Johansson’s recent “Lucy”. After seeing this bleak film set with the backdrop of a beautiful but bleak Scotland winterscape, many will wonder what they just saw. Some will complain that it was slow and depressing and that nothing happens. This opening paragraph is for those people who will feel that way. You can stop reading now.

Frankly, “Under the Skin” is a very well made film. I’ve read synopses describe Johansson’s character as an alien, but this movie doesn’t work in such rigidly defined terms as that. She could be an alien. She could be a demon. She seems to be some sort of succubus, although she never actually gets to the sex before consuming her victims’ souls. Her sexuality is most certainly a key element in her hook. But, perhaps to describe her as a demon of any kind is wrong. It implies evil. She’s a predator, but then nature produces many of those without a hint of evil to them. Perhaps all she’s doing is surviving.

She doesn’t seem fully aware of all the aspects of the world she inhabits. She knows she turns men on, but I’m not convinced she knows why. It is all part of her nature. How many of us truly understand our own nature? After a while, she begins to question her nature, her purpose. The problem is she’s not alone in her existence. There are others who seem to depend on her prey. I don’t know how, but there are men who serve her by cleaning up any captures that go wrong and even by finding her a vessel through which to operate amongst human kind.

She abandons her purpose eventually to explore the beauty of this sad land in which she operates. There is a sense that this choice will spell her doom, but considering how the movie begins, perhaps this is all just part of her life cycle. I really don’t know. It’s fascinating to watch, however, in large part due to Johansson’s cool performance and an isolation from which she can’t seem to break free.

Any questions left unanswered are not a result of sloppy filmmaking. Director Jonathan Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell, working from Michel Faber’s novel, establish very strict rules for this creature and her life style. This may be where some more impatient audience members are lost. There is a distinct cycle of repetition that is established in the way she hunts her prey. This is to clearly establish her choice to break away from her purpose. It also adds to some of the possibilities of just what that cycle is about. I can’t say whether she is a force of evil who has a change of heart, or simply a creature surviving through the gifts she is awarded in life. It’s an interesting distinction in this world where we insist on placing blacks and whites over all our grays.

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