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MOVIE REVIEW: FTN reviews Under The Skin

March 12th, 2014 by Conor ONeill Comments

Under the Skin (18)
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan
Running time: 108 min

Where do I start? The release of Under The Skin, writer and director Jonathan Glazer’s first release since 2004’s Birth, caused division of both high acclaim and revulsion at last year’s Venice film festival and it’s not hard to see why. The beginning bodes well with composer Mica Levi’s Velvet Underground era John Cale’s distorted viola and deranged alien noises illuminating an ever growing circle of white light suggesting we could be in for one hour and forty-eight minutes of intrigue and suspense.

Unfortunately what follows is nearly two hours of fragmented plot, if one can spot a plot, a mystifying motorcycle rider who appears to have little to do with Scarlett Johansson’s nameless character, a strange house which seems to have a huge pool of oil-like gloop which single and horny men disappear into, a drowning, a missing family, scenes which appear to happen for the sake of it and little coherence. Based loosely on the novel by Micheal Faber – which admittedly I’ve never read, so I don’t know what exactly Glazer had to work with – and more of that originally enchanting score which at the beginning was mesmerising but half an hour in begins to grate on the nerves.

It’s almost fifteen minutes before we hear Johansson’s voice as she, in the vein of the Yorkshire Ripper, tries to lure the vulnerable single men into her white van before seducing them and stripping off, teasing them as she walks them to their tar-pit grave. The nudity, it must be said, is not gratuitous, and for once it is good to see Johansson with a bit of meat on her bones. She is almost unrecognisable due to a heavy black wig and the added pounds. As the film is set in the Scottish Highlands and modern day Glasgow, this transformation does allow Glazer to shoot with impunity in the busy city centre on the hoof: no closing of streets, no extras, just the good people of Glasgow going about their daily business unaware they’re bit characters in a film.

One scene that does stick out and gives the nameless one a touch of humanity is when she picks up a heavily disfigured man, takes him to his grizzly end then, in an unseen Lazarus style moment, is seen walking away naked from the house of horrors. This entrancing little twist is then mystified by the anonymous biker kidnapping and doing away with him. This scene typifies the whole film, namely bewilderment.

Glazer, Johansson, cast and crew have created a claustrophobic and atmospheric piece of film, which in many years may be looked upon as cinematic genius and on the syllabus of all decent film schools, but in a film I always look for a good story well acted. Not that Johansson’s portrayal of a apathetic alien in human form doesn’t achieve its goal, but with such little, if any plot, I at times couldn’t help but feel like I was wasting good ink and paper by taking notes as I watched. The only contrast and conflict of any worth is Johansson’s character’s sudden and inexplicable change from first hunter to the seduced and then the hunted.

The ending, which I was praying would bring the past hour and a bit of confusing streams of disjointed scenes would draw all the threads together to a satisfying and much yearned for conclusion. Yet in truth the movie felt like a drawn out end of uni art installation.

If valium is ever outlawed I can easily imagine this film will be freely available on the NHS as a cure for insomnia.

1 out of 5 Nerds


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Conor O'Neill is at times a playwright and a qualified journalist. He has worked for the Belfast Telegraph, Portadown Times and South Belfast Advertiser. He also contributes to various online e-zines, specialising in theatre, gig reviews and other cultural events. If you were to ask him what he does, he will say 'I'm functioning'... that's a lie. Best suited to pressure and deadlines, O'Neill thrives on the moment, the passion and the thrill of now, he's only happy when he's watching or reviewing a play.