After watching Under the Skin at my local indie theater (really weird date movie, by the way), I tweeted out of frustration that it was basically “12 minute tracking shots of nothing while Scarlett Johansson stared blankly at men”. I’m having difficulty now, weeks later, trying to decide what exactly went wrong for me. Though my first qualm was a lack of depth to Johansson’s character, I rationalized myself out of this by comparing her alien/succubi to similar archetypes in other films. Is Johansson’s “Laura” meant to be an engaging sociopathic or psychopathic character like Travis Bickle or Patrick Bateman? Does that work?
I’ll buy Bickle or Bateman as suitable protagonists because they demonstrate a multitude of emotions. We experience remorse and anxiety with Bickle, and undulating rage beneath a veneer of happiness with Bateman. They are predators, yes, but they’re also dynamic in their relationships with other characters. They may not feel love or empathy easily, but they do feel obsession, and they submit to rituals which change over the course of their respective films. They attempt and fail.
In Under the Skin, “Laura” rarely emotes, and when she does, it’s usually to communicate mild discomfort due to physical issues, or disbelief at the fact that she doesn’t have a vagina. One of the most terrifying sequences in the film simply depicts Laura staring into a mirror in a dark room, but nothing comes of the moment, even later in the film. It is suggested that her feelings toward her male victims either change over time or are based on the individual, but I would argue that Johansson’s acting is not strong enough to communicate these subtle differences. We are told through repeated images of Laura with a certain man (who looks and speaks like any of the other men in the film) that she might have romantic or sexual feelings for him. After he takes her into his home, Laura regards herself in the mirror while bathed in red light, as if she’s considering her body as a different tool than the simple bait-and-switch it was before. At this point in the movie, I was still partially on board with what I believed was happening. In fact, just as Laura attempts to have sex with the aforementioned dude, the crux of my issue with Under the Skin reared its head. Simply put, Laura hits an obstacle and does, well, nothing.
Is the reveal that she doesn’t have genitals supposed to mirror body dysphoria? Was this creature really not aware of its own anatomy before its first attempt at penetrative sex? Why aren’t we given a visual of Laura’s reaction, and why is there no aftermath to the scene where she snatches a lamp and holds it between her legs, back to the camera?
Ambiguity, especially in sci-fi or psychological thrillers (or art films, even!), is more than acceptable, but denying viewers any sort of payoff feels unsatisfying. I’m not sure if the film’s weird chase scene toward the end is supposed to be a last ditch effort toward character development, or even to build to a tonal crescendo, but it doesn’t really do either. Laura is pursued by a man who means nothing to her, just as every other man in the film meant nothing. One might argue that Laura, upon confronting her own asexuality, is suddenly averse to, and even afraid of, the advances of men, but the whole sequence is mishandled. We’re not even aware of the stakes, and to make things worse, we can feel the cinematographer practically huffing on the “potency” of his forest-tinged shots of Laura hiding.
The stylistic choices which seem to define Under the Skin work beautifully in other horror films and tense thrillers. Specifically, the use of sound effects, extratextual music and silence, while working effectively in certain scenes (the first few times we see Laura win her prey, it’s maddeningly beautiful), are not up to par throughout the whole film. How can I be wowed by Under the Skin using silence when I’ve seen Lost Highway and The Shining?
The concept of sound manipulation in The Shining is so inherently tied to its use of color and shot-to-shot pacing that the effect is staggering. (In contrast, sound in Under the Skin is used an interesting way, but it’s not at odds with or in support of any other element in the film.) In The Shining, I’m thinking of Danny’s big wheel bike hitting carpet (muted thuds), then hard floor (rattling), and then carpet again (abrupt change to thuds again), all while we watch him spin endlessly around the Overlook Hotel.
Even more exciting is the use of silence in Lost Highway. When I watched the party scene in a Sound in Film class during college, I was chilled to the bone. There’s nothing like that hollow feeling in your gut when the party background noise drops out:
The difference between the sinister tone in Lost Highway and the lackluster, nebulous mood in Under the Skin also has a lot to do with character intention. If a director is going to use silence to alienate his audience as horror-movie-goers, he better have a discernible plan. Under the Skin has absolutely zero memorable dialogue, as opposed to the live-wire screams of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. And yes, silence and the pregnant pause are used in Lost Highway, but we also get the sense that what the characters say to each other matters, both to them and to us. The stranger in the above scene says, “you invited me. it is not my custom to go where I am not welcome.” From that singular line, we’ve learned a great deal about his worldview and possible role in the film’s narrative.
I wanted fervently for Laura to utter a couple syllables to, at the very least, HINT toward some kind of internal monologue or drive. But…nothing.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of protagonists in film who succeed as watchable characters while not verbally explaining themselves. To assert otherwise would be ridiculous. Patrick Bateman seesaws between saying what he means (“I want to play with your blood”) and saying the opposite, and the friction between the two tactics is great. Further, characters like Truman Capote in Capote express their internal workings through figurative language and shifts in on-screen energy instead of honest dialogue.
Capote gets away with its extended, silent tracking shots of landscapes because the film’s protagonist punctuates these visuals with dynamic energy. In some scenes, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Capote is manic and pithy, and in others (usually when paired with Catherine Keener’s Harper Lee) he is contemplative and confessional. His range of delivery and tactic is what sells the film’s overall tense, close-to-silent tone.
As far as tense tracking shots go, it’s pretty easy to find multiple successful examples. One of my favorites, though it might be a cliche to point it out, is the opening scene in Touch of Evil where we follow a car across a film set and await its deadly explosion for several minutes. If we’ve lost anything in contemporary film, it might be the ability to include a crane shot without irony; this kind of thing works so well in classic film.
The film synopsis provided at Rotten Tomatoes warns that Under the Skin might “elusive” for some (nothing is really eluding me, it’s just boring me to death), and it cites Johansson’s performance as “mesmerizing.” Although I wouldn’t call her work in Don Jon “mesmerizing” per say, it was certainly more entertaining on a visceral and visual level. Johansson also demonstrates her vocal range and vulnerable timbre in Her, so I’m confused as to why her turn in Under the Skin didn’t really grab me.
Robert Denerstein calls the film “serious, intriguing, and lacking a human core,” and I believe that’s my central problem with it. I’ve dedicated a good deal of my free time to writing a blog on monsters and sociopaths, and yet Under the Skin did nothing for me. If Laura had been a purely silent, unfeeling character, I would have been into that. If she had been a tortured alien monster that eventually imploded with emotion, I would have been EVEN MORE invested in that. The truth is that I didn’t find her to be much of anything in particular.
I don’t think the question here is Laura’s humanity, but instead her literary complexity. She could have been more engaging, or at the very least more expressive, without losing any of her monstrous nature. As we know, purity is beauty in monstrous forms as well (that’s the scariest part of Alien!) For me, though, creating an effective monster is not about rendering her free of her humanity, but instead altering or complicating it. Under the Skin does neither.