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" We’re not asking you to take orders, Joe. We’re tellin you. "
— Robert DeNiro, Once Upon a Time in America

MRQE Top Critic

Ballroom

An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

Trividic et al haunt the Ballroom

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Director Jonathan Glazer’s movie brims with stylistic and thematic flourishes that give it an other-worldly aura — an achievement of sorts because the movie is set almost entirely on Earth.

Glazer achieves this unsettling effect by showing us Earth — mostly the Scottish city of Glasgow — from the detached viewpont of an extraterrestrial.

Johansson in the dark corners of Glasgow
Johansson in the dark corners of Glasgow

Scarlett Johansson portrays a character who — after the film’s spacey beginning — travels around Glasgow in a van. In a black wig and fur jacket, Johnanson looks attractive and remote, an alien who seems to be following a set of programmed instructions about how to relate to the men she encounters.

The mood is one of extreme alienation. The people walking Glascow’s streets may think they’re headed somewhere, but to us they appear purposeless, maybe even superfluous.

Johansson’s character can be friendly when she needs to be; i.e., when she’s luring men (some of them non-actors who reportedly didn’t know they were being filmed) into her van.

We quickly come to regard this woman as a kind of deep-space femme fatale. She never delivers on her sexual promise, but takes her prey to a rundown hideout and then sinks them into a dark, fathomless murk from which they’ll never return.

Glazer’s adaptation of a Michel Faber novel keeps every scene dimly lit, making it feel as if we must fight our way into the movie.

If you’ve seen enough sci-fi, you’ll probably surmise that Johansson’s character is on an aien mission. What mission? Where does she come from?

Glazer leaves it to us to fill in the blanks or, more likely, to push such questions aside as irrelevant.

The movie’s purposeful ambiguity suggests that Glazer wants to keep our minds working overtime, which isn’t always easy because his uninflected style can tend toward monotony.

That’s not to say that there aren’t amazing sequences here. A rescue on a beach leaves a terrifying, pitiless aftertaste, particularly in the way it concludes.

I won’t say more, but if you’re troubled by the idea of watching a toddler in jeopardy, Under the Skin will provide you with material enough for several nightmares.

The images at the end of the movie put Johansson’s earlier nudity (of which there’s a fair amount) into a new and provocative light, turning Under the Skin into a meditation on the body. The movie’s title encourages us to look deeper.

Johansson’s playing a predatory creature who, at various times, explores the humanity that she has assumed, less with wonder than with stunned curiosity.

At one point, she even seems to take human emotion for a test run: She feels sorry for a man with a facial deformity, and later becomes sexually aroused with a man she meets at a bus stop.

In general, though, Johansson suppresses the user-friendly charms she brought to Her, a movie in which she was never seen. Here we see plenty of her — and nothing at all.

Under the Skin marks Glazer’s third movie, after 2000’s Sexy Beast and 2004’s Birth. He’s definitely a talent, although one that’s not easy to pin down.

Those who are so inclined can read all sorts of things into Glazer’s movie — and probably will. Others will find it interesting — even trancelike — but unrewarding overall.

I think I lean more toward the latter category. Murky, ambitious and remote, Under the Skin can be very much like its main character: serious and intriguing, but lacking a human core.