Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Under the Skin (2014) Film Review

Check it out... if a willingness to take bold risks from both lead actress and director, in regards to themes, nudity, images and music is something that appeals to you.

Skip it... if confronting themes and images, including showings of a lack of empathetic behavior, nudity, and brutal and systematic murders of individuals doesn't sound like your piece of cake; as it undoubtedly won't be for many a viewer

"Under the Skin" poster
"The sheer audacity of all those who worked on Under the Skin astounds me; such risks are rare, and should be received with open arms."

Under the Skin is a film directed by Jonathon Glazer, and stars Scarlett Johansson, Paul Brannigan and Adam Pearson, and centres around the character of Laura; an emotionless alien, who is sent on a rather mysterious mission to Scotland, where she attempts to lure young men into an otherworldly lair. As Laura's mission goes on, she begins to turn into a mildly curious being, whose mission could very well be compromised in the process.

Many hadn't heard of Jonathon Glazer prior to the release of Under the Skin, his third feature film. Whilst his first solo feature, Sexy Beast, was a relative success in regards to both critical and commercial consensus', his second film, Birth, seemed to rub a wrong chord with both audiences and critics alike, and left his career in a sort of daze. With no major cinematic releases in over a decade, it seemed to be that Glazer had left the industry, and that his directing days were numbered. But it seems this was most certainly not the case; in fact, Glazer had been hard at work for the entirety of the decade, crafting the intense and mind-numbingly advanced piece of art that is Under the Skin, a film which stars the incredibly brave and talented Scarlett Johansson. And whilst the commercial success of Under the Skin has been quite poor, the critical response has been, far and wide, generally exceptional. Many have acclaimed the ambitious nature of such a project as this, as Glazer's career has not been so exemplary; one would expect that such a director, whose previous film had been considered a dud, would stick to the easy and not try anything too profoundly unique. This is generally the case with many a struggling film maker, whose failed attempts at expressive and ambitious film-making has left them with little to do than follow the formulas provided by those come before. 

Glazer, on the other hand, has embarked upon a completely separate path; one that has seen him collaborate with one of Hollywood's finest commodities, and should certainly reinvigorate his career for years to come, for Under the Skin is an undeniable masterpiece; a work of art, if you will. From the use of themes and images, to the immensely subtle and systematic way of story-telling, this is one of the finest endeavors of 2014. It all hangs on the shoulders of Scarlett Johansson, whom is that hot Hollywood commodity I mentioned previously, whose bravery and fearlessness for the sake of maintaining the perfect creepy tone all throughout the picture reflect incredibly well on her undeniable talent; this is a seriously impressive actress, capable of performing extremely stressful tasks so as to deliver a great performance. She inhabits her unemotional and often jarringly disconnected character, Laura, and highlights her continually changing perspective on humanity, our own race, and it's empathetic though often aggressive nature, all without the use of dialogue. Laura is an alien, and only resorts to using human language when seducing and luring a victim back to an alien killing room, so for the majority of the running time, Johansson has to demonstrate Laura's character arc through facial expressions and movement. For any actor or actress, this is undoubtedly an incredibly testing and difficult thing to fathom and do, though Johansson's efforts are blisteringly good. Her subtle movements and small shows of emotions make the biggest difference in showing her character's eventual arc.

Though it's not just this side of the performance that has seen such an abundance of critics hailing Johansson for her efforts; whilst this subtle and dreadfully intense detail in regards to facial expressions and movements do deserve a great deal of praise, it's Johansson's willingness to do many-an-action that most actresses would no doubt shy away from. Whether it be stripping down, exposing her complete nakedness to the camera, or interacting and seducing men who don't know their actually being filmed, Johansson's dedication to providing the best and most confronting performance possible is part of the reason I have to accredit her so much. Can I see anyone else filling her role in the film? Most certainly not! This is Scarlett's role, through and through, and due to her interactions and picture-perfect story-telling through expressions, it is only her I can see ever playing Laura. Though, those whom she interacts with during the film, whether being filmed with or without knowledge of that individual, do not deserved to be discounted in regards to their exceptional additions to the film. The Scottish men who Laura was seducing, who were filmed with hidden cameras whilst they interacted with Johansson, all add a great deal to the film; a sense of realism that benefits the unsettling tone undertaken by Glazer. A disfigured man, Adam Pearson, played one of the men seduced by Laura, and is heart-breaking in his short but pivotal part in the film. And to think that this was only Pearson's first cinematic role is an astounding fact; to act alongside a star of such high caliber as Scarlett Johansson in your first feature film role must've been quite an experience! The entirety of the ensemble is rather brilliant, and not a dud performance was to be found all throughout, which is a credit to Glazer and his team; despite working with numerous first-timers, he has managed to allow every actor and actresses' best to shine through. 

Glazer's determined direction doesn't just shine through the performances alone, though; from the musical score to the use of images and symbols, Glazer's attention to detail is certainly to be noted by those who take real notice. Near every single shot is something that can be examined and broken-down by those wiling to, as there is a great deal of beauty in everything he has taken to include on a visual front. From the colour palette, which many will break apart and examine (as have I), to the use of long takes, and the often confusing use of symbolism, cinematography is certainly a key component for Under the Skin; so many of the shots add to the aforementioned creepy tone that the film undertakes. Glazer does so well to reinforce this all throughout, without dialogue being spouted about it; something is consistently tugging at you all throughout, telling you that what you're viewing isn't ok. The music also adds to this by ten fold, though I certainly won't discount what I said about Mica Levi's efforts when I reviewed the album out of context. Just because I've listened to the score in context, does not mean a rating shall be changed. I don't assess the quality of a compilation soundtrack based on how well it is utilised throughout the visual medium it supports; I address it's positives and negatives based upon the songs and how good they are on album. An album release for a score means that I can examine the score separately from the visual medium, and can report my thoughts back to you as such. Though still, despite my absolute hatred of Levi's creation (that's a pun, for a cue on the album is entitled Creation; it was a bad pun, but I refuse to get rid of it!), the score does work in the context of the film. It has an intense, sci-fi grit to it, and it's intolerable "instrumentation" really does increase that viciously harrowing mood that plagues the film and the viewer all too often. 

Whilst the film's first act sports a look at human's perception of various supposed idealistic properties and their often blatant ignorance, it's the second act which tests the idea of an alien living amongst humans, and what comes about is some of the most devastatingly thrilling and bone-chillingly brutal sci-fi drama I've seen in a good while. The film's unpredictability continually leaves you speechless, and the climax, whilst slightly anticlimactic, is suitably unforeseeable and calls back to the beginning of the film in an incredibly subtle way, that I appreciated greatly. The second act not only changes up the plot and direction in near entirety, but also adds a great deal of peril and danger that is not so acutely clear throughout the first act. This greater quantity of intensity and peril is not delivered in your generic Hollywood-like fashion, with a high-speed chase accumulating in a stand-off, or something of this sort. No; Glazer and fellow screenwriter Walter Campbell have made sure to avoid such a stereotypical ending to an otherwise unique and original film. This uniqueness tugs away all throughout, and you are constantly trying to find films to compare to Under the Skin, though not a single title can be directly tied to what we have here. There are certainly a number of films which I can identify certain components that have similarities to Under the Skin's characters, plot and tone, though nothing that truly feels like Glazer's product. This is risky territory that our director has stumbled upon, though he has managed to traverse it incredibly well. Such risks are rare, and certainly in this context, should be received with open arms. I've only given two 10/10 ratings this year; those films which truly deserved them being Edge of Tomorrow and The Grand Budapest Hotel; films of an absolutely delightful standard. I gifted Edge of Tomorrow a perfect 10 based on it's originality and execution, whilst The Grand Budapest Hotel found itself with a perfect rating due it's unique tone and look. As you can see, a certain pattern can be found here. Both Edge and Grand Budapest sport the similarity of uniqueness, and such can be found within Under the Skin; the next film to receive the perfect rating. I desperately hope that people remember this in the years to come, for I believe what Glazer has produced could be considered one of the great sci-fi movies of the past decade; a little irony, it seems, considering the length of time it has taken for him to construct this piece of golden film.


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