Waitaminute ... Scarlet Johansson gets nekkid?

A review of the UNDER THE SKIN DVD and Blu-Ray, starring Scarlett Johansson

So, you’ve got Scarlett Johansson driving a van around the streets of Glasgow, picking up single young men and taking them back to her place for a bit of the ol’ hanky panky. How could that possibly be a bad thing? Introduce a vat of random black goo, that’s how. Duh. It’s like Screenwriting 101, really.

UNDER THE SKIN isn’t a film you watch to guess the ending, or to thrill to big-budget FX, or even to have a slice of life experience that puts you in another’s shoes, etc., etc. This is a film you watch just to watch, as an unfolding spectacle of WTF. It’s beautiful to look at and the soundtrack is skin-bumpingly squiggly — but if you want plot, sir or ma’am, I suggest you rent CHINATOWN instead.

Ever see 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY? Remember how half the film goes by before there’s dialogue and you might have thought, “Dude, this makes no sense but I can’t look away — did someone slip a tab of acid into my Mountain Dew?” That’s kinda like UNDER THE SKIN.

If the idea of an art-house scifi flick turns your stomach, you should opt out now. This ain’t your cup of beans. But if you’re still intrigued, I think you’d dig it.

In UNDER THE SKIN, Johansson’s unnamed character cruises the streets to find men that are just so. She bats those baby greens, gives a confident-yet-shy smile, invites the besmitted dupes into her White Van Of Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, and off they go. Her dates do not fare well. They are removed from society in a rather bizarre way, never to be heard from again.

This girl is collecting men. We assume she is an alien, but we’re never sure of that — this could just as easily have been billed as a supernatural tale, one of demons or witches or any number of made-up monsters. Hell, it could even be the best Rapture ever, where your escort to heaven happens to be one of the most beautiful people in the world.

There is no background for her actions, no explanation as to why she does what she does. She is exceedingly particular in her selection criteria: the men must be alone and preferably don’t have wives, girlfriends or kids. She’s looking for a particular kind of man. In that way, there’s a bit of Natasha Henstridge’s role as Sil in SPECIES, but this isn’t about mating — and we never really find out what, exactly, it is about.

It’s important to note that these men didn’t “do something to deserve it.” It’s also important to note that the men don’t force themselves on her in any way, don’t trick her, drug her, try to bully her or anything like that. She is the seductress. She alone drives the encounter. These men don’t appear to be criminals or thugs or rapists or men who slap women around, they’re simply hetero boys who wouldn’t turn down a sexy offer from a beautiful girl. This isn’t about revenge or just deserts: these poor bastards are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Do these men die? Yep, and when they do it ain’t pretty.

Some people have said Johanson “sleepwalks” through the role, but I think they’re missing the point. She is a predator. No, that’s the wrong word, because when I think of a predator, I think of a creature that enjoys the hunt. Johanson’s role is more that of a clinician — someone who goes about her deadly business with all the emotional involvement of a scientist euthanizing her 10,000th rat for some experiment. She has a job to do and she does it. She turns on the subtle charm when it’s time to lure a fly into her web, but other than that, straight-gangsta deadpan.

It’s only when she starts to feel compassion that things go south for her. Her final victim is malformed, and the seduction is a horribly heart-wrenching display. That sequence alone is worth the rental, as it stirs up some conflicting emotions.

Yes, Johanson gets nude. For those of you into such things, however, be warned — in the context of this flick, her buff scenes are about as sexy as Buffalo Bill dancing to “Goodbye Horses” in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS.

I enjoyed it, largely because I had no frickin’ idea what was going on. Normally that drives me batty about a film, but with UNDER THE SKIN, that’s kind of the point. I wasn’t here to guess whodunnit, and I was able to enjoy it for what it is. We watch the character go from being a good soldier to feeling empathy for her targets (we assume that’s what is happening, anyway), and then she’s screwed. Some people think this movie is “laughable” and others call it “masterful.” I don’t think it’s either. I think it’s some serious full-frontal TWILIGHT ZONE. There is no plot to figure out, per se, you’re just along for the ride and what a tripped-out ride it is.

1. Best/nastiest death scene I have seen in awhile. It made my intestines do flip flops and had me fumbling for the “rewind” button. From a straight gore perspective, it was some grade-A “what the fuck just happened?” goodness.

2. Scarlet Johansson. Nuf said. A total knockout to many, in this flick she’s beautiful but not in the totally tricked-out hair/eyes/clothes/makeup Hollywood style. She has a more normal quality that makes you put yourself in the shoes of her victims, which makes it all feel very realistic and, therefore, way more spooky. Add to that the movie’s claim that her conversations with men on the streets of Glasgow were non-scripted and filmed with hidden cameras, and there is a serious yech factor going on.

3. The flipping of the scripting. Make no mistake, this movie is about a sexual predator. In some ways, this movie is a slasher/serial-killer flick where the victims are young men as opposed to the typical fare of young women. These boys are powerless against her charms. Once the killing bits start, things gets trippy. You literally watch men shrink before her: they become more helpless, infantile and docile — prey-like — while she, in perspective, becomes taller, bigger, more all-powerful and truly dangerous.

I dug it. If you need a break from recurring scifi tropes (yes, SNOWPIERCER and ELYSIUM, we get it — all rich people are bad, hmmm-kay?) and you’ve got 108 minutes to kill, check this one out.

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  1. ratman19

    I simply wish we viewers were given more answers to what was unfolding. Unfortunately (I feel it’s important to begin the sentence this way), I am the type that likes things spelled out for me, my imagination is limited and I have a hard time finding the deeper meaning in an experience such as this. Who were the bikers? Was she feeding herself in that house and had a change of heart? I know this is not the forum for such answers to be revealed incase others have not seen it yet.

    I may watch it again in the hopes I will catch something I missed the first time. I doubt it though since the movie was by no means fast paced.

  2. ratman19

    Following your suggestion, I watched this film with my wife today. I must say, I enjoyed the experience.

    Just finishing, I am left with the feeling “What the hell did I just watch” but in a positive way more so than a negative.

    I must say, the best part was the soundtrack. It’s amazing what a few notes can accomplish to the senses.

    1. scottsigler

      @ratman19: I loved the soundtrack. I thought the sparse use of music was critical to holding my attention in those long still shots. So glad to hear you watched it because of this blog, and enjoyed it!

  3. JasonAnderson

    I happened to see this just last week and wasn’t sure what I was getting into. I think that made the experience that much better. This film is very much an experience. I’m also a sucker for any film that can hold shots for as long as this one does without me being pulled out of the film. (The bus stop for example)

    1. scottsigler

      JasonAnderson: I’m probably going to watch it again sometime, which is weird for me. I don’t do a lot of second-viewings. I was also captivated by how long they could hold a shot and I was still interested.