Let’s Talk About ‘Under the Skin’ (2013)

What does it mean?

That’s the first question most of us ask ourselves when we get to the end of a movie like Under the Skin. What’s it trying to say? What message is it trying to impart to me, to the world? 

But I guess what we are really asking is what the director meant by making the movie. What is the intended meaning of the movie? And sometimes there are very specific ideas the director is trying to convey. Other times, the director would rather we bring our own ideas and experiences to bear on what we’ve seen and decide what the movie means to us as individuals. 

I don’t know which of these groups Under the Skin belongs to. I haven’t listened to any interviews with director Johnathan Glazer, haven’t watched any behind the scenes documentaries, or listened to the BluRay commentary. 

There are plenty of reviewers out there with their own theories. And there’s plenty of crossover in terms of what ideas and themes people think the movie is trying to get across. There’s a lot of talk of empathy, sexual dynamics, feminist themes, and even immigration. I guess some of that is in there. Some of it I’m less sure about.

And to be honest, I’m not sure what I thought Under the Skin was about the first time I saw it 10 years ago. It certainly left me thinking about it for a long time after. Years after, if I’m being honest. But I don’t think I ever really settled on a meaning of the film. 

My second viewing was different. Nearly a decade later the movie was still very fresh, like I had watched it only a few months before. But things had changed. The world had changed. Dramatically. I had changed. My life had changed. In many ways. Some of them unexpected. 

What came through quite clearly this time around was how many times some variation of the word lonely was spoken in dialogue. I didn’t get a count, but it gets repeated over and over again. And Under the Skin is not a dialogue heavy film. It’s mostly imagery set to a score. But loneliness as a theme is very present. 

The other thing that stuck out was the setting itself. This time in a different way. Scotland is depicted as cold, wet, harsh. The people are often shown to be distant from one another, even when they are in close proximity to one another. They are not unlike the setting they inhabit. Some reviewers have pointed out that Under the Skin shows how the lonely are often exploited in society, but I think this may be a case of seeing the trees but missing the forest. 

I don’t think the movie is just about the lonely. Or, rather, according to Under the Skin, we are all lonely. We are all subject to exploitation. We all feel alienated. From one another, from the natural world. Despite being crammed into cities and living in close proximity to so many people, we have no connection to those people. We don’t know the throngs of people we pass each day on the street. In many cases, we don’t even know our neighbors. Even the people who are shown to be in social settings in Under the Skin aren’t really connecting to the other people around them. 

In one scene, Scarlett Johansson’s character is swept along to a club by a mob of drunken partygoers. She doesn’t feel a part of the group. And probably neither do the other women. They’ve medicated themselves to a point that they are barely aware of what is even going on around them. The same is true of the people in the club. The music is loud. It’s mechanical. Alienating. The club goers share the same physical space, but not much more. 

Eventually, Johannson’s character makes her way out of the city and into a rural community. A man offers to help her. She goes with him, but they never speak. As they make their way to his house, they pass other houses and we see neighbors looking at them through the windows as they pass by, but none of them wave or make any attempt to greet them. They just watch with blank stares as the man and the woman pass by. The man feeds Johannson’s character, and they sit together on the couch watching tv, not interacting. They try to have sex, but it’s mechanical. There’s no passion. No real desire. 

Toward the end of the film, Johannson lays down in a forest in an attempt to hide from a man who is trying to rape her. The image of her fades and is slowly replaced by an image of the Scottish heath. I hadn’t noticed this image the first time I watched it, and if I did, I didn’t think it was significant. 

But this time I was struck by the image.  This time it did seem significant. I wondered if it was meant to suggest that Johannson’s character was in some way connected to the land or maybe even meant to represent the land itself in some way. But I couldn’t really get it to work out in a literal sense. Why would Johannson’s character, if meant to represent Scotland or simply the land itself, go from malevolent to benevolent? Wouldn’t the land just be ambivalent?

I rolled these questions around for a bit, and I came up with an interpretation that may be too literal, but it works for me. 

Johannson does represent the land. In the city, she preys upon people. She is the city. The city seduces us. It lures us away from our families, from our communities, from our friends. It isolates us and reduces us to something superficial. An image. An avatar. A skin that we wear. 

In the countryside, she is the countryside. She’s docile. Innocent. She is manipulated by man. And regardless of his intentions—whether they be good, as in the case of the man who tries to help her or bad, as in the case of the man who tries to rape her—our actions ultimately destroy her. We all want something from her. We all want to possess her, to use her in some way. 

For me, Under the Skin is about the environment. Our environment. It’s about the modern world and the ways in which we are alienated from each other and from nature itself. And it’s about the ways in which we destroy nature and ultimately ourselves, regardless of our intentions.

What Under the Skin Means to Us

I was so incredibly astounded by Under the Skin the first time that I saw it, that I had to watch it a second time within a week of my first viewing. The second viewing was one that I had to share with a friend, because I needed someone else to witness the brilliance of what I had seen. I needed someone to unpack with me everything there is to think about when thinking about this movie.

It’s awesome to see someone like Scarlett Johannsen test the bounds of what it means to be an actor. She’s someone who can play it safe with blockbuster hits and showy Oscar bait performances, but instead proves that she up to the task for a really interesting role. As much as I love what ScarJo is doing here, all of my praise must go to director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer. This dazzling experiment in filmmaking is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It reimagines what a great movie can be and does so in just about the most awe-inspiring way possible.

—Raf Stitt

I’m a big fan of Scarlett Johansson. I’m a big fan of A24. And I’m a big fan of eccentric sci-fi horror films. So it was a surprise when Under the Skin didn’t click with me on first viewing. I put it down to watching it with someone who really didn’t enjoy it, with that rubbing off on me a little. I didn’t think it was a bad film, I just didn’t really get it.

A few months later I decided it deserved a second chance. This time I made sure to isolate myself from company, turn the lights off and the surround sound up. My goodness did this make a difference. I was transported into the cities and hills of Scotland, and more importantly, I was completely transfixed with Scarlett Johansson’s character. I could easily see how her prey became victims, and probably would have fallen for her myself if the film’s events transpired in real life. It felt as realistic as a film could, when portraying an alien walking the streets and observing human life. It was a mesmerizing experience, and one that I can recreate with any subsequent viewing.

—Lee McCutcheon

What about you? What’s your experience with Under the Skin? What do you think it means? Take to the comments and let us know.

Author: Dhalbaby

I like big Bigbooté, and I cannot lie.