UNDER THE SKIN (2014, Jonathan Glazer)
As a cinephile who got into movies because of Stanley Kubrick, and basically a person for whom Kubrick is the closest thing to a God I’ll believe in, I’m pretty much the perfect audience for any movie that successfully appropriates Kubrick’s particular style. I’m neither the first nor the last writer to mention that Jonathan Glazer is clearly going for Kubrickian precision with his latest film, UNDER THE SKIN, and so it may seem that it was a foregone conclusion that I’d lap this thing up no matter what. And perhaps it was, and perhaps this isn’t the masterpiece it looks like to me. But I don’t think so. I think this grandiose, ambitious, deceptively small, near-miraculous work of art earns every bit of its praise, and none of that is riding on the coattails of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY or FULL METAL JACKET.
Granted, Mica Levi’s hypnotic score recalls the Ligeti, Carlos, and Vivian Kubrick (credited as Abigail Mead) music from 2001, THE SHINING, and FULL METAL JACKET respectively — it, along with Johnnie Burn’s sound design is the primary tool Glazer uses to lend his film a razor-sharp edge. The audio track slices and stabs, then lulls you before the next blade is unsheathed. There’s even a jump scare halfway through that actually jolted me out of my seat due to sound and image being in perfect harmony: Glazer plays you like a fiddle during this, and I can’t remember the last time my eyes were so glued to the screen. I didn’t even want to blink for fear I’d miss a cut. And oh, the cutting — Glazer and his editor Paul Watts (improbably making his feature editing debut with this; is Watts rookie of the year or what?) are so precise with it; each cut is a surprise, just ahead of your anticipation but never moving the story ahead too fast. Glazer even matches his shots so well when there’s a shocking cut — like in a scene when Scarlett Johansson’s lead character (and by the way, her near-wordless performance, the sole focus of nearly every scene, is stunning) is standing in a fog looking around, as the film cuts to her point of view, it just looks like her body completely disappears off the screen because the framing is so steady. And in a dark theater on a big screen, you almost see the outline of her body still dissolving in the frame during the next shot: it’s a gorgeous example of form providing content.
Visually, I could go on and on about the glorious compositions and striking imagery throughout (like ScarJo getting out of a van and disappearing into the fog through the windshield; a baby crawling on the rocks of a beach; naked men floating in a womb-like ooze; a fork lifting a piece of cake; a man’s finger pinching the back of his own hand) but it would take up too much space and I would have nothing smart to say about them other than “wow that shot was awesome,” so let me briefly get to the text here. The story of an alien trying to become human can be read as a parable (or, I guess, fable is more accurate) for a few different things: the inhospitable nature of mankind to women, the cruel indifference of the universe towards humankind, and the inherent loneliness of any kind of existence. But if there’s anything not completely nihilistic to take from this, it’s also in the potential for kindness among humans, living right alongside its frightening capacity for violence as well. Still, love and bonding and family are but pieces of tape on the gaping wound of existential despair, never summed up better than in a microcosmic sequence at a beach, where a dog gets lost at sea, and is followed out into the unforgiving waves by a woman, then her husband, and then a helpful stranger. It’s a brutally sad short story told wordlessly and expertly by Glazer, something I’ll remember vividly for years to come.
The animalistic nature of man, the struggle for individuality, and the harsh effects of the ravages of time and earth are themes you’d also recognize in the aforementioned Kubrick — in films like BARRY LYNDON, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and even THE KILLING. But Glazer isn’t just aping his cinematic idol; he does make his own mark on this movie, fully forming a style that had just started to get exciting with his 2004 film BIRTH. For example, Kubrick may never have been able to find the quiet, heartbreaking moment where the deformed passenger pinches his hand. But it still comes as no surprise that Glazer would be the heir apparent to sir Stanley. 20 years ago, he helmed a video for Blur’s “The Universal,” an incredible song made even better by Glazer’s wholesale recreation of CLOCKWORK. Here it is in all its glory — evidence that someday, a movie as sensational as UNDER THE SKIN would come along: