For this week’s edition of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has chosen (as he does about once a year) a brand new movie: Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinary mood piece starring Scarlett Johansson. It’s fresh enough (just out on DVD last week!) and surprising enough that I want very badly not to spoil it for anyone; also, my pick for Best Shot is within the wheelhouse of Not Safe For Work. So I’m putting the rest of this below the jump.
So anyway, we have here our film about a woman-shaped nonhuman, leading men to be devoured by a mysterious force in an abandoned house. Horror/sci-fi, close enough, but something about Under the Skin makes any attempt to put it in a genre film box feel like a perverse attempt to deprive it of its energy. It is a nightmare, but it is also beautiful and transporting.
I’d like to say that it was the desire to fuse those two elements of the film that led me to pick the shot I did, but it’s more like an after-the-fact justification. The fact is, even before Nathaniel announced this title, I knew what single image from the film had hit me the hardest, the kind of image that only happens a handful of times in a given year, if you’re lucky. It comes after the single most horrifying instant in the picture, when one of the Johansson-thing’s victims watches another one being suddenly sucked dry of everything from blood to bone. This leaves behind only a shroud of flesh, floating in the deep black pool of nothing where the force dwells.
Glazer lingers on that a good long while, as the ribbons of dead skin drift and coruscate and recede into the gloom. I suspect that for each individual viewer, the perfect balance is different, but as far as I’m concerned, the moment couldn’t be more flawless: it lasts exactly as long as it possibly could without the horror of that initial moment completely dissipating, but also hangs on long enough for the abstract beauty and visual poetry of the constantly fluctuating shape and shifting shades of blue to begin to make itself present despite the visceral disgust of the same image.
Under the Skin is too dense with ideas of what “the body” means, how gender is processed visually and socially, the nature of violent acts and selfishness, and the like, to make any absolute statements on the order of, “this is what the film Is About”. But one of the things it is about is the complexity of how beauty, death, and terror interact with each other, and this is not anywhere more immediate and intense to me than in this single instant. I would dearly love to pretend that I have some rich, complicated thematic argument that I could indulge in – I just wrote how many words about a single frame from a Batman picture? – but I think that’s part of the genius of this film, is that it does so much on an intuitive level. I picked this shot because it’s the one that left me flat on my ass before I had any chance to react, and that’s all there is to it. And movies that can hit that hard are the rarest and most pleasurable of all.