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Under the Skin

Released 2014. Director: Jonathan Glazer

IN TOTAL DARKNESS THE MOVIE OPENS WITH A PIN PRICK OF LIGHT that expands ever so slowly. Then we see geometric forms and hear vocalization, like a machine learning to mimic human voices, against a background soundscape of low hums, repeated drumming and high-pitched sound that suggest a muffled terror.

By a roadside in the cloak of night, someone gets off a bike and drags a woman’s body into a white van. Scarlett Johansson, naked, started undressing the dead woman and puts on her clothes.

Under The Skin is a mystery that doesn’t concern itself with unravelling. There is much that is left to the audience to deduce, assume and hypothesize; and that’s fine. This movie is so creepy and unnerving the last thing you want is a full expository that spoils the fun.

What follows is Scarlett’s unnamed character driving the van around Glasgow finding her victims. She scans the streets searching for a particular type. She pretends to be lost, asks for directions and offers men a lift, seduces them into a dark house where they strip, mesmerized, and find themselves trapped underwater until they suddenly expire in a puff, like a balloon bursting, leaving only a layer of skin.

Who is this woman who lure men to their deaths and who is her accomplice, the man on the motorcycle? What are their plans? Where have they come from? Jonathan Glazer’s direction has a gloomy artfulness in his vision of an oppressive environment. The men selected live alone and their disappearance wouldn’t be noticed for some time. Is this a metaphor for the exploitation of a neglected underclass, whose purpose in life is to feed and enrich the powerful? Scarlett’s character is without sympathy, as we see how she ignores a crying toddler on the beach when the father has just drowned trying to save another child.

But the unexpected happens when our heartless murderer develops a sense of conscience and a shred of humanity beneath her synthetic skin when she lets a victim go. She wanders off her post, walks aimlessly until taken in by a stranger who offers the silent woman shelter and food, hoping to take advantage of her. She tries to eat, almost had sex, but her body isn’t built for basic human activity.

When the predator becomes the prey, the movie is essentially turning the table on the audience. The alien from another world or dimension is on a journey of self-awareness. Scarlett transforms from a calculative manipulator to a confused, frightened being lost in an unfamiliar world.

When she is assaulted in the woods and then burnt to death, the movie makes us face our own mindset. It’s horrific to see her being violently overpowered. But why does it provoke such reaction to her ordeal and less so, if much at all, for all the men she killed? Is it because the male victims were shown to be blinded by lust, stripping off their clothes voluntarily (albeit through some mind control)? Is it because the men were willing participants giving in to their own expectations, whilst she was hunted, chased through the woods in terror?

Her death scene is meant to elicit an emotional response from the audience. At the same time it cleverly illustrates that human emotions contribute to human vulnerability. When this alien being, who was in complete control, begins to develop human feelings, she loses her ability to control and becomes an equal target for predators like herself.

Under the Skin is beguiling, stylish and haunting; its enigma deepens by its own minimalism.

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