Under the Skin : A Film Review

Warm and Cold Blood Directed by Jonathan Glazer. Script by William Campbell.
You may have seen some strange movies and this may rate among them as one of the more challenging and difficult to get a handle on.
Jonathan Glazer, whose persona is as an affable and middle class Essex man and whose dark imaginings are homed in compartments as chapters of visionary expression of alien tales, has held onto a ten years dream in realising this film with time producing a highly developed theme.
Given this timescale there might be absences which remain in the directors reading of the story which are hard in the subsequently realised film for the viewer to tease out but ultimately it succeeds in delivering a vision in primary cold and warm blood.
It is based on the Michael Faber book of the same name.
Over this time Glazer has had lofty ambitions and collaborators working on it and overtime it has metamorpised into the pared down extremely raw culturally alien content we have revealed to us in the landscape of Scotland.
Alien Skin
The story has Scarlett Johanssen fit herself into a human creatures skin.
The real alien actor her form takes has a quest to discover the meaning of humans and the earth they exist on. To enable the story to work you need concede there is some motivation involved otherwise the actions are futile and without design. The being is what intrigues this alien. Her character, delivered with a British pre referendum English accent, is a woman whose skin she inhabits. This is delivered to her entirely lifeless by her collaborator and protector. A man.
The enabler, body guard, interpreter – who never speaks – is none other than Jeremy McWilliams, the renowned NI born World Moto GP rider, cast as a motorcycle rider following her everywhere and seemingly aware of her quest and endeavors.
They seldom meet but his background presence assists the exploration and the motorcycle races through the film on a winding, sometimes straight, wide topography on a speed fix at full throttle. The choke is out which contrasts with the seemingly sedate pace of the visitor. The malevolent controlling moving rider component is borne with the violence of speed traversing land uncompromisingly. He pushes the bike hard like a heart pushing red blood cells through a bodies veins. Having a life rush.
Jeremy McWilliams provides a harbinger portentous force not intent on any failure, controls or morality of any kind.
Alien Place
In the city the urban life confuses the Alien as she drives around observing people in their isolation as they shop, traverse the spaces between buildings talk or don’t talk to each other. Actor took control over director where they went and the randomness of real life encounters were junctions to assume a starting place for the fiction. I think this in effect makes Scarlett nĂºmero uno director. It’s her path visualized by Glazer somehow. It steps up on male suburban alien fantasy somewhat and maybe taken over in the astounding performance of the created abstract.
When it is dusk she seeks out single men from the front seat of her van. The cabin and van are anonymous to the real life Glasgow which Glazer hoovers up in its city urbanism, providing the ordinary. The device of dark streets punctuated by harsh lighting provides the extremity, the Incivility of night spaces. in the urban sprawl of road and roundabouts the visitor sees no value loss, seeing only persons going from a to b and she enquiries of.
The female she is, is mirrored in odd segments of surprise in frames. She collects these part reflections of her in habitation as an accumulation. Her body seen by her in parts builds for her a perception of a human being and in one interaction with a male she touches literally on her progressively expressed emotive reactions. She has no interior self otherwise. Acting the part of a human, the alien has been equipped to converse in the language adopted. This is realised compellingly in a coupling which shifts her concepts of humans and makes contact with pain and the angst ridden private lives challenged by their surroundings and other people. Initially without a soul she is predatory for the experiences she believes is at the heart of our existence. A surface seen as skin.
The he clothes are trashy but literate. It is not a rock star guise but a use of clothes not in the literal sense, as Paloma Faiths use of image as a protection. Seeing me as not the shy or insecure person that I am.
Alien Shifting
It was as J McW accounted to me after seeing the film for his second time “Its something different”. I took this in part to be the fact he was now an actor albeit in a character part which carries naturally held skills with ease and also that the film itself was conceptually on the outside. He also said they needed .. “someone to ride a motorcycle and kill.” He filled the role as brilliantly and focused as might any accomplished actor and convincingly so which is no small achievement upside such a defining superb performance from his co-star whose talent is at the top of the acting scale and here demonstrated.
The dark laden dusk riding and night riding were links of the narrative where he is on the trail of Scarlett Johanssen who has no other name.
She in the beginning of the film arrives as a liquid form turning into an eye emerging or passing through the cinematically Kubrickesque wormhole which creates the narrative for origin and otherworld essence and planet like elements scope out the arrival.
The liquid is transposed on a white background where her new form, a woman’s body as our watery selves, is reformed in the corpse of the culled young woman whose persona she is given to enter into our world.
Alien Plains
Scotland has never been tested thus since Arthur Conan Doyle.
The film fits a Scottish mythology and though the Northern lights do not make an appearance that northernness with storm bent pines and wild breakers on a dominant defiant coastline express fear imagined and real alongside the monochromatic headlights of the motorcycles ever present trail.
Fog appears and snow crystalises as though a metamorphic presence of the other alien world and fine particles enmesh the screen making you realise these are forms of hallucinations without the methamphetamine drug of choice on many urban streets in use as an avoidance tool.
The new forms first excursion though is into a streetscape, the urban living, the communities of people together that she has seen from behind the wheel of a van which is her home for the duration. She has other dwelling places but those are outlying points for episodic interaction of which she has several. The wheels stop in the streets recognisable as Glasgow.
In a walk through a shopping centre the anonymity is intense within the crowd same place, your place and a sense of anyplace is derived. It signals a post modern abstraction we connive in.
The folk are friendly and too hospitable for their own good which she exploits to determine the way we live. She takes on the central mating urge by using her persona to entice, attract single young men and offer them their salvation sexually. This is achieved quite straightforwardly given the aforesaid captive beauty of the Scarlett lady who attracts despite her careworn clothes and unattractive wig. She has reconciled to act in what she assumes is the prolate of the times, the predatory rituals all brought front and central as our primordial selves as she sees from the alien location.
Alien Story
Through the advances of the narrative and the visitor capturing human thoughts the city becomes itself unreal and unsettling which brings into play the Scottish landscape and nature. Is this an admission of her being unprepared for this explorations outcome and realisation, literally of complexities of people?
Some extremely kind and selfless and others despicable psychotic and violent. This is a derangement which Glazer gradually and incrementally builds. At times it is too subtle and hard to make attachments too. There is also no one to empathise with except the whole of mankind as a construct not of our making and endangered by each other’s responses to their seen viewed world. The paring out and down of the elements of narrative are difficult to get right though it can said truthfully the mechanisms of film are deliberately withheld – words – set pieces explainers – special effects point making are eschewed in favour of longer takes, still framing, which allows action to pass through. Effects are used. In morphic scenes but little else.
It becomes absorbing, infuriating, compelling to watch in order to work out what is going on. It is not simple but quietly and intelligently presented.
Who is Who
What you will make of it may not be anywhere near what I have made of it but superlatives and five star ratings are ‘alien overkill’ however it is ‘extremely good and is not like many other film you are likely to see any day soon but I will refrain from comparisons a it stands strongly on its own.

Will the adventure reach a happy ending, will it reach conclusion or will it leave things hanging or will it fold in on itself all things are possible and that is the message I got from it.

This is a cinematic oddity which may or may not become something of a cult film. The performances are brilliant and remarkable with some beautifully realised individual episodes from newcomers each Imbedding a realism of the chosen culture invaded by the explorer. There is more than ordinariness in Scotland’s identity that is an established fact. There is then an exploitation of the identity in this malicious adventure. No escape routes are shown or given, the tightness of presence with which the author, director and actors play is at times literally as drowning in oil. An altered state perfected in visual candour and without parody but exquisite carnal baggage set as the constraint on skin. Within is under the skin and Scarlett Johansson inhabits as a first class actor in this unique journey.

All journeys are unique. This no more or less so.

John Graham

12 March 2014