Thought-Illuminating, Mind-Blowing ‘Under the Skin’

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Imagine a stranger taking a journey around the landscape of their destiny. That only begins to describe the audacity and power of director Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” Scarlett Johansson creates a character of undeniable mystery and truth, a stranger in a strange land.

Johansson portrays an alien who looks like Scarlett Johansson, and thus can lure the men of this world – or at least the part of the world that is Scotland – into a void that they follow “her” into. And because the seduction is highly metaphoric, it reflects back to connections between men and women, the islands of human isolation, and the ramifications of our outer and inner selves. There is something so viable about the morality of the film, down to the last desperate and unfair punishment that the Johansson character must endure. This work of art is highly meditative, and eventually highly personal.

The stranger (Johansson) begins her journey by stepping into the clothing of a woman mysterious procured for her by a motorcycle-riding companion (Jeremy McWilliams). She then takes to Scottish roadways in a van, and proceeds to solicit men, and lure them into a fluid-like void, to harvest their bodies and make them disappear.

Scarlett Johansson
Stranger in a Strange Land: Scarlett Johansson in ‘Under the Skin’
Photo credit: A24

She witnesses and participates in several circumstances of seduction. In one instance, she sees a couple drown in the ocean, and then interacts with a man who tries to save them. In another, she picks up an individual who is physically disfigured, and takes pity on his innocence. After letting him go, she suffers from a crisis of her own existential image, and suddenly is aware of the consequence of her actions. This leads to her final destination.

The description seems like a story, but it’s not a conventional narrative. If perhaps you were not aware of the alien angle to the story, you might figure the woman to be a serial killer, or her motorcyclist companion to be a partner in it. The film can work in that way, if the surreal metaphors – like the liquid void – are interpreted to be commentary on human existence. Either way, it sends powerful messages, both on the eternal reflection of “man’s inhumanity to man,” and the loneliness of a long distance journey.

The awareness that Johansson has in the role of the stranger continues her substantial performance winning streak (after last year’s “Don Jon” and her voiceover in “Her”). She barely has any dialogue, all of her truth comes from the skin she’s in and the outer expression. If her character is carrying out a “mission,” it begins dispassionately, and slowly develops into an overwhelmed sense of who or what she is on this planet. She exposes herself substantially – yes, there is nudity on her part – but the real exposure is based on a confusion of what her outer shell defines.

Director Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) composes a symphony of images that range from compelling scenic isolation to multi-security camera madness. His technique of directing a brunette-wigged Johansson through real locations with hidden cameras is a master stroke of cinematic commentary. Those scenes isolates Johansson’s character even further, as the day-to-day buzzes around her and male attention is the only lifeline available to her.

Scarlett Johansson
Lost and Found: A Walk Through the Woods in ‘Under the Skin’
Photo credit: A24

There are many questions that come to mind when viewing this mysterious and intriguing path that she involves herself in. What does water symbolize in life and death? How much of how we look influences our circumstances? Who are we without our sexual nature? Are we useful only to a point, and then as the saying goes, “are we born alone and die alone?” “Under the Skin” is a psychological examination, with no grade, just a take-home assignment of consideration.

In an interview with, Glazer was struck by how alone we all are, after producing this film. But he also spoke of achieving the right tone in his films, “you know it when you feel it.” This could be a lesson of “Under the Skin,” to truly know the world around you, you have to feel it.

“Under the Skin” continues its limited release in Chicago on April 11th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWillams and Lynsey Taylor Mackay. Screenplay by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell, based on a novel by Michel Faber. Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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