Under the Skin (2014)

  • Director – Jonathon Glazer
  • Starring – Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor MacKay.
  • Writer – Walter Campbell, Jonathon Glazer (both screenplay), Michael Faber (novel)
  • Year – 2014
  • Running Time – 108 minutes


 Sometimes a little knowledge can go a long way and that is certainly true with Under the Skin. Normally I like to go into a film knowing nothing at all, preferring to experience the story unfolding in front of me in blissful ignorance. However this approach can occasionally lead to disaster, especially with films with non-traditional narrative structures. A case in point is Upstream Colour, which I stumbled out of a confused and mumbling mess. I think I would have exited the screen in a much more dignified manner if I had gone in armed with a basic plot structure on which to cling on to, but saying that, with Upstream Colour, I am not sure that even exists.

Whilst not as impenetrable as Upstream Colour, Under the Skin offers no fanfare, back-story or even defined characters (the actors are simply listed in the credits and not assigned to any specific role). At the start of the film, much like Scarlett Johansson, we find ourselves on the streets of Scotland, with a clear mission, but with unclear objectives. You quickly realise Johansson is an alien like seductress, cruising the streets at the wheel of white van, seeking out young single men to entice back to a terraced house, where they meet a murky end. However for what purpose though is open to interpretation.

Johansson is single minded in her mission and robotic in her quest to meet her quota. This is an effective and at times a deeply unsettling performance. One particular scene where Johansson simply stands and watches, or perhaps observes, an event with tragic consequences is one of the most chilling and terrifying scenes I can remember in a long time. Her inactivity, which appears to straddle intrigue and dismissiveness, is almost unbearable to watch. Dialogue throughout the film is limited, though when it arrives the contrast that Johansson achieves between her mission and the need for interaction with her victims is stark and chillingly good.

This sense of dread and terror seeps through all aspects of the narrative. A small cast of supporting ‘characters’ adds further to your general level of concern. Some are clearly being hunted whilst others appear to support the hunter. The innovative method of filming using hidden cameras within the van to capture real interactions with confused Glaswegians could have simply been a gimmick, however it works well in keeping you constantly off balance and questioning what is real and what isn’t.

Director Jonathan Glazer enhances this overall sense of unease by dragging a deliberately drab brush across the screen and the use of colour when it arrives (in particular deep reds) is both jarring and immersive. As the film develops, so do the visuals and themes. We move away from the inner city and head to the country. Here the world opens up for our protagonist and leads to questions which will leave you pondering the answers for some time to come.

Under the Skin will get under yours. This powerful, predatory and provocative science fiction, has enough strength in its own convictions to give you what you need and not a minute more. Compelling stuff.


Review by Will Malone

If you liked Under The Skin, try Only Lovers Left Alive.