Director of all trades Jonathan Glazer heads north of the border for his Scarlet Johansson anti-vehicle Under the skin.
Mild Spoilers Ahead
I have a theory that Scarlett Johansson (or as I can’t help but call her in my mind, Scally Johally) is the female equivalent to everyones’ favorite lunatic troubadour, Nicolas Cage. Aside from similarities in role choices – spanning big dumb cape and cgi blockbusters and weird indie shit – they both act every role at one step removed. Every character they play contains the unmistakable residue of the actor’s true personality, but also their persona. It’s at once more realistic and less. You don’t have to suspend your disbelief when you watch Lucy or The Sorcerers Apprentice, because you aren’t watching them play a character. No, you are watching a hyper stylish documentary about an alternate universe where Nic Cage quit acting to become a wizard, or Scally Johally gets some magic glitter in her brain and becomestotally not a wizard.
All this to say, that although there has been a lot of talk about what was effectively the stunt casting of Johansson – one of the world’s most recognisable A-Listers – in a partially hidden camera, low budget sci-fi oddity, the actual sleight of hand is somewhere else. In casting her as an outsider, isolated and idolised by a naive public who would be disturbed by her true nature as a parasite and predator, Scarlett Johansson has for once been cast in a role where her real life image fits perfectly with her character. Her reaction as she moves through the braying crowds of Celtic supporters, and the throngs of high-street shoppers (i.e. normal people) would have been the same had the cameras been there or not. It’s a piece of real genius, and adds an enthralling layer of double reflection when in the latter half of the film herSpecies style alien character makes the inevitable grab for humanity. In these scenes Scarlett Johansson the actress is back on her home turf, with a script and other actors, and the ‘persona distance’ is reintroduced. Like I say, it’s an interesting wrinkle in the fabric of the film, but not one that takes anything away from the experience.
Performances elsewhere are also very good. The local men sleaze it up, exuding a sexual desperation that seems to soak into every part of the sad and run down parts of Scotland where the first part of the film takes place. Especially excellent is Adam Pearson (above) who manages to portray a complex mixture of incredulity, wounded pride, and desperation for human contact. At one point he pinches himself to check he isn’t in a dream, and the dramatic irony reaches ludicrous pitch. Johansen’s actions thereafter set the rest of the plot in motion, but she doesn’t act from pity for his disfigurement, but from the realisation that she and her prey aren’t actually the same. This blindness to the differences between humans (who are a food source in the book) comes back to haunt her. The prey is more attuned to danger than the predator.
The film looks incredible, with a sterile gloom infusing the whole film like fog. Glazer’s wide range of experiences with adverts and music video as well as cinema has armed him with a wide variety of tricks (the candid camera chief amongst them), and during the sweeping shots of a motorcycle travelling through the highlands at night it’s obvious he’s done a few car commercials. The more abstract shots are beautiful and unsettling, and there is even a jump scare, in case you need to sell it to an unenthusiastic partner as a horror. From the formless void of the opening scene, before the alien has taken on her body, to the stunning ending scene that I won’t ruin, the direction and cinematography is excellent everywhere, with a mesmerising score by Mica Levi topping things off nicely. I look forward to his fourth feature, probably to be released in 2034.
If someone asked you if you wanted to see an arty adaptation of a little known novel about an alien in Scotland directed by the man who made the video for Radiohead’s Karma Police, how would you answer that? Or if instead you were asked to indicate your interest in seeing Scarlett Johansson seducing scottish warehouse workers in a bizzaro world pan-Atlantic drawl? Obviously none of it makes any sense, none of it should work because it’s mad. It turns out it’s also affecting, scary, funny, and beautiful.