'Well it certainly got under my Skin!’ is the instinctive responsive to Jonathan Glazer’s new film, and is a line that has a dangerous likelihood of becoming a clichéd response for all potential viewers. But this will be the ultimate compliment. For clichés are clichés given they speak a resounding element of truth. Sure enough, Glazer’s remarkable achievement delivers something extraordinarily unsettling. By rights, it should impact all who see it.
With a background in stunning commercials and music videos, namely the seminal Guinness Surfing Horses (you know, the best ad of all time, in the world, ever?), or Unkle’s ‘Rabbit in the Headlights’, Glazer’s foray into film would inevitably have been met with quizzical gazes from the snobbish elite. Style over substance being the obvious accusation for starters. The leap from 30 seconds or 3 minutes to feature length would be light years for someone who was regarded as merely an exponent of the trendy cutting edge for the late 90’s MTV glory years. Or more gallingly, looked upon with disdain for being limited to bringing a snippet of corporate art direction to (admittedly spectacular) life.
His 1999 debut, ‘Sexy Beast’ was unsurprisingly showered with edgy style. Yet the delicious dialogue and performances riveted with panic and fury elevated it to the status of an unforgettable showstopper, and are what people mainly remember it for. If anything, it left an indelible stamp of what his feature lengths could potentially offer. The follow up, ‘Birth’ was met with mixed reviews, and both stalled the momentum and flagellated neasayers before a decade or so off the map. All until his re-emergence now. Nine years is a long time for anyone to be hibernating from in any form of creative work, but we now know that Glazer was stewing and cultivating something boldly conceptual, and with a precise patience. In terms of impact, the result is well worth the wait.
'Under The Skin' opens with an ambiguity that never leaves it. A slowmoving, evolutionary or mechanical shot (whichever way you like to interpret it) gives way to a menacing biker speeding through the bleak Scottish night, before recovering a female body from the side of the road and dumping it into the back of a uniform white Transit van. It’s here that the film’s centrepiece, Scarlett Johansson, who is inferred to be an alien being of some sort, assumes the rough appearance and clothing of the stricken body, before taking off in the Transit to drive around the wintry environs on a quest to prey indiscrimately on unsuspecting Glaswegian men. Her origins are never explained, and neither are her motives. However, both are totally unnecessary, as the foreboding atmosphere overwhelms the entire mood, never to relent.
Kerb Crawler… Scarlett mingling amongst the punters in Glasgow
'Under the Skin' is driven by an incredibly straightforward, but jaw droppingly inventive approach to shooting, and one that has now definitively broken new boundaries. Hidden cameras followed a barely recognisable Johansson all around the streets and urban throngs of Glasgow, with a cast of thousands of unsuspecting Glaswegians being surveyed protagonists, or potential prey. All are oblivious to who they are in the midst of. If you thought Big Brother and CCTV was the stuff of Foucaultian nightmares piercing everyday life, being immersed in this most normal of crowds was an incredibly unsettling experience. Peace of mind is shattered in an instant, knowing that you could just easily be marked out as an indiscriminate target of prey for something even more merciless and unknown than the state or any overarching authority. The eeriness of wading through innocent bystanders, whether middle aged women in shopping centres, to Celtic fans post final whistle without them having any idea, struck a chilling chord throughout. The feeling of humble people like you or I, who have no idea they are so exposed and vulnerable in real crowd situations to such menace and predatory behaviour, are being observed cut impossibly deep. Glazer had created a wholly new and sharpened check on reality.
As ‘she’ works her way through Glasgow, young males are picked off once they find her alluring advances impossible to resist. Termination was easy, and merciless, luring them into a murky black liquid, or oblivion essentially, before disappearing or combusting without trace. The early cold heartlessness is extreme, coldly witnessing a couple drown, and icily killing a heroic swimmer who had just failed to save them. The purposely leaving a crying baby in the howling wind and rain on the beachfront to die is one of the most harrowing and powerful scenes you’re likely to witness.
As it progresses beyond the bustle of Glasgow, the hunting ground gets bleaker in exposure, and more isolated. Fittingly, this is in tandem with the increasingly vulnerable people who become targeted. The more hopeless and lonely the prey become however, suddenly arouses basic feelings of human sentiment and emotion. A facially disfigured victim, scarcely believing his luck, is curiously spared, whilst the companionship and sanctuary offered by another results in her bewilderment, and innocent attempts at human instincts like eating (chocolate cake), music (tapping along to Deacon Blue) and even attempting to go along with some human intimacy.
Perhaps one of the core themes through this penetrating film is that the modern world in no longer is a safe place for the emotive, tender human, as weakness is coldly quashed by the merciless, ominous other. The tables do indeed slowly turn, and in Johansson’s softening towards the intrigue of human instinct and feeling, she suddenly becomes as vulnerable, isolated and exposed as her previous pitiful targets, thereby embodying the idea of the hunter being the hunted, and duly paying the ultimate price for exhibiting weakness. With this in mind, the possibilities stemming from this made me feel as though ‘Under The Skin’ had scratched the surface of existentialism to a level that rubbed raw like never before.
These hugely perturbing messages wouldn’t be so impacting and resonating, if it wasn’t for the sum of Glazer’s brilliantly considered parts. The shooting of the bleak, wintry Scottish grit is so harsh and exposed, we can almost feel the cold in our bones. The feeling that we could just easily have been under watch, (and perhaps are at this moment) never leaves your senses either, and lingers on nervously. A unique ability to blend stunning cutting edge CGI with the most ordinary and humdrum of everyday life is delicately balanced at some crucial moments, lending a disconcerting plausibility to the menacing modus operandi of Johansson and the biker. As if we didn’t need further worries from what on the whole, was ultimately a genuienly scary watch, in a more far reaching definition of the term.
It may be hyperbole to declare that ‘Under The Skin’ is a cinematic watershed, but if not, at least Glazer had come pretty damn close. The unparallelled disturbing mood, executed through the groundbreaking visual impact and deep penetration of the thematic possibilities all combine to make Under The Skin a unique sensory experience.