If there’s anything that can be said about Under The Skin, based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, is that it’s an incredibly ambitious and entirely uncompromising film. It’s apparent right from the start: the movie opens with a beautifully creepy and ominous score that plays over a black screen until, bit by bit, that darkness gives way to beautiful and multi-interpretable visuals. Not long after we’re introduced to Scarlett Johansson’s character, a woman prowling the streets for men. Why she does what she does gets revealed slowly, but after the movie pulls back the curtains it’s still up to the viewer to come up with their own explanation and take on the events shown. Saying any more about the story would only take away from the often quite hallucinatory ride the film takes you on, even though Under The Skin is a picture that isn’t necessarily concerned with its plot. Instead it focuses on serving up a unique atmosphere and a one-of-a kind experience, and that it accomplishes with flying colors.
Because there’s very little talk in the film and there’s no hand-holding at all, much of the storytelling is left to Under The Skin‘s star. Johansson’s posture, gaze and facial expressions, mixed with the actions of her character, are all we have to piece together what exactly is going on and, most importantly, what’s going on inside the mind of the movie’s main character. This means you can come up with her motivation, construct her personality and get to the depths of the mysterious woman at Under The Skin‘s center. It’s incredibly telling that, almost without words, the actress pulls you in and is mesmerizing to watch, which really adds another layer of intrigue to some of the movie’s most crucial events. Johansson manages to make this husk of a human being entirely compelling, vulnerable and even sympathetic. In many ways this film and Her show off just what a world-class actress Scarlett Johansson is: the latter film relied solely on her ability to emote with her voice, and Under The Skin is entirely dependent on her ability to emote with anything but her voice. In both cases the results are nothing short of outstanding.
Even though the central performance is extremely strong and the movie’s effects work, score and sound design are absolutely stunning, Under The Skin isn’t a resounding success. It moves at a very slow pace, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, but you can’t help but get the creeping feeling that it’s paced that way because it just didn’t have a lot to say and it had to fill up its runtime. To be blunt: long stretches of the film are boring and stuffed with fluff like shots of people window shopping or simply roaming the streets. Because of the way the movie’s being shot these scenes, filmed with a spy cam that gives its own cheap look and feel to the footage, also clash with the more artistic and beautifully lit and framed shots Under The Skin treats its audience to in other places, which is why the cinematography is a mixed bag, ranging from marvelous to pedestrian. Again: this film is very interesting, ambitious and uncompromising, but that doesn’t always make for the best of viewing experiences.
Under The Skin bites off more than it can chew, but is elevated by its leading lady. While the direction and artistic choices make this film interesting, it’s Scarlett Johansson who makes it compelling. 7/10