Under The Skin (2013)

Under The Skin, 2013; directed by Jonathan Glazer; Starring Scarlett Johannson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay

“Kubrickian” is one of those terms that if you slip into conversation with movie fans, they’ll pick up what you’re throwing down.  But what do we mean when we call something Kubrickian?  On the one hand we are identifying a relationship between the films of Stanley Kubrick and whatever film(s) we are describing.  But what exactly does calling something Kubrickian mean?

2013’s Under The Skin is a horror/sci-fi hybrid that, in describing it, many folks have invoked the Kubrickian term.  I would be one of those folks.  So what do *I* mean when I call it Kubrickian?  First, I would say, are the very striking visuals.  The opening scene, or shot, is about as abstract as it gets. I also find it very beautiful. And I think it may be good litmus test of whether or not this film is for you.  It looks amazing.  But what’s going on in this film?  Why does it take so long for stuff to happen?  And what the hell does any of this mean?

Which brings me to another point about Under The Skin which I would describe as Kubrickian.  It’s use of detachment.  Detachment and alienation were big themes for Kubrick.  What does it mean to be human?  Maybe more specifically, what happens when some or one of us become disconnected?  Or are never quite able to really connect? In Under The Skin, Scarlett Johannson plays some sort of non-human being who looks like, well, a woman as attractive as Scarlett Johannson.  And she uses her appearance to pick up men from a van she drives.  I’m not giving anything away by telling you she seems to be bringing them to their certain dooms.

Through all of this, she seems very disconnected.  She exhibits no visible desires, no wants, no emotion about any of this.  She is simply driving a van and looking for men, in Scotland.  When she spies some potential man on the side of the road she will stop and speak to him through the rolled down van window.  Usually she asks for directions. She gives us no indication of any inner life.

Early on in the movie a man on a motorcycle stops at the side of a road, picks up the body of a woman and places it in a van.  Soon we are in some empty, yet seemingly vast, disconnected place.  A nude Scarlett Johannson slowly strips the clothes off the body of the woman we just saw being placed in the van and puts them on herself.  She does this passively.  Deliberately.  There is nothing sexual about it.

To go back to the Kubrickian themes – and to address the questions I left unanswered a few paragraphs back – nothing is explained.  Director Glazer, much like Kubrick, trusts his audience to be thrown right into the thick of things and be able figure out what’s going on.   And while I’ve leaned on the Kubrickian term through out this post, I do not think that this film, or Glazer, is in anyway really copying Kubrick.  He is his own filmmaker with his own style.  Glazer’s debut, Sexy Beats, is a story in which a british gangster attempts to retire in Spain, only to be pulled back in for one last job is remarkable.  It’s also very different from anything Kubrick ever did.

After Pop Teez has covered a couple of great, but loud and showy films, Under The Skin is something much quieter, much slower.  It might not be for everyone.  But if you can get into it’s hypnotic rhythms and go where it’s taking you, it’s striking images will stick with you for a long time.  It’s underlying themes of what is it to be human; what is it to be connected (or disconnected) with one another may stick even longer.  It’s cold and slow and yet beautiful and haunting all at the same time. 

Dr. Vorhees