Please excuse Judge Gordon Sullivan. He has a splinter.
Seeing ourselves through alien eyes.
Under the Skin didn't receive a whole lot of buzz prior to its opening. Adapted from a novel that wasn't a bestseller, with a director who'd had a hit (Sexy Beast) and a miss (Birth), the film had to rely on star Scarlet Johansson's box office power to get people in seats. The one article I saw on the film before its theatrical debut noted two things about the film—that Scarlet Johansson has a bit more meat on her bones than the average Hollywood actress, and one can tell this fact because she spends a number of scenes naked. At least one young man at the screening I attended appeared to have shown up because of the promise of ScarJo nudity, but as the film unfolded such a promise seemed more and more like a cruel trick. Yes, Under the Skin will likely be forever known as the movie Scarlett Johansson got really naked in, but it's also a difficult, experimental film that eschews narrative for mood. Lots of people are going to hate it, but those with an interest in what cinema is capable of should give it a shot.
Facts of the Case
A woman (Scarlett Johannson, Lucy) drives around Scotland in a van picking up men for some nefarious purpose.
Under the Skin is a difficult film to talk about. The closest film I can compare it to is Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. Both films are products of writer/directors fond of adapting other's work. Both films star impossibly beautiful actors who, in another context, would be tremendous box office draws. Finally, both films are visually inventive, putting mood and emotion ahead of narrative coherence.
But they also diverge significantly. The Fountain is pure maximalism, with three interlocking timelines that take place across the reaches of the universe. In contrast, Under the Skin goes straight for minimalism. So much of the film is just watching Scarlett Johansson drive around Scotland, wondering which of the men we see in the frame she'll try to pick up next.
Where The Fountain emphasizes love, hope, and loss, Under the Skin goes for a sickening kind of dread. We don't know what Scarlett Johansson's purpose is (we don't even know her character's name—the film gives us no context, and I don't want to spoil too much by revealing what we *do* learn about her). We do know, from very early on, that she's not like everyone else, and that information infects or infests every moment of the film. The most casual conversations with a stranger take on dark overtones.
It's also difficult to talk about Under the Skin because it's one of the most purely cinematic films of recent years. There are a handful of very powerful scenes in the film, and part of their power lies in the fact that they're almost impossible to narrate. I could try to describe them to you, but they'd sound stupid or nonsensical. But on the screen, they sing, showing us things that more narratively-driven films would gloss over or be too scared to show.
And speaking of singing, Under the Skin perfectly demonstrates the idea that sound is an essential part of any film's toolkit. Very little is actually said. There's no explanatory voiceover, no mad scientist delivering reams of exposition. Instead, we get the few conversations that Scarlett Johansson has with the men she picks up. On their surface, these are banal, perhaps ridiculous discussion—where do you live? what do you do? where are you going? But in addition to these conversation we get the soundtrack by Mica Levi, a blend of sounds and musical collaborations that forms a near-constant backdrop to Johansson's wandering. It's alien and insectile, and makes even the most mundane interactions throb with menace. And when conversations do emerge from this soup of sound, they seem all the more significant. I found myself leaning forward in the theater, trying to follow the thick Scottish accents (thankfully, this disc includes helpful subtitles, though watching the film first without them might feel more authentic).
Not many people saw Under the Skin in theaters, and that's a shame. The overwhelming size of the movie screen really helps sell the film. However, this DVD does a pretty good job with a difficult film. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer sports some great blacks. Much of the film takes place at night, or in dark rooms, and blacks on this disc are surprisingly deep and consistent for SD. The material shot on HD looks as sharp as you'd expect of a contemporary film with a budget, while the "hidden camera" style material looks less impressive (though that's the source and not this transfer). Colors are muted, but that suits the often-rainy Scottish setting. Overall, the film is a visual feast and wonderfully presented here.
The film's sound design is treated even more effectively with this Dolby 5.1 Surround track. Surround us is great, especially for the less naturalistic aspects of sound design. Dialogue is often a bit muffled and hard to discern, but that's largely about its capture not this track. Dynamic range is impressive, though, as is the clarity of the track.
Extras start with a making-of featurette that covers the usual topics. For a small scale film that didn't light the box office up it's a nice addition. Fans of the film (myself included) might want more—a commentary—but these featurettes give a pretty solid idea about how the film came together. An Ultraviolet Digital Copy is also included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Under the Skin is not the typical film. Characters don't really change—if you can even call them characters. The "plot" is really a series of episodes that provide us some insight into Scarlett Johansson's character, but it's not like we get a lot of information or explanation. In the era where narratively-driven television is obsessed with giving us character backstory and beat-driven moments, this feels like a refusal to engage. The fact that the film is fronted by one of Hollywood's biggest stars feels subversive. Which isn't a problem for me, or for anyone who is experimentally inclined. However, for those used to Scarlett Johansson's forays into sci-fi like Marvel's The Avengers, Under the Skin is likely to be a baffling, frustrating experience. That goes double for all those lured to the film by the promise of nudity from the star. You'll get that for certain, but you'll also get some eye-scarring visuals in the bargain.
Under the Skin is a bold experimental work that sets aside narrative to create a mood of tense dread as we watch one of Hollywood's most watchable faces subvert her image. It's worth a rental for adventurous viewers, and this DVD is a fine way to see the film.
It might get under your skin, but it's not guilty.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.