Beneath the Skin of “Under the Skin”

Taylor Page

“Under The Skin,” like most stories, relies upon a narrative that exists on the surface of the film: a seductive alien luring willing men into her grasp my means of a van that peruses the Scottish coastline. But this analysis is written to unearth what lies beneath this framework, to discover its true heart just below a provocative and chilling sci-fi casing: a study of the existence of empathy and the chaotic nature of society.

By framing the film through the eyes of an extra terrestrial, and skillfully using space and noise within the film, the audience is able to easily observe life objectively. For example, the ET’s van acts almost as a cold void, in which there is no sound, no life, merely the existence of our main character, Laura, as she mercilessly plucks strangers from the streets. There are whole minutes of uncut scenes in which the viewer seems to become completely wrapped within this void, almost seemingly mirroring the cold objective void of space itself. Through this frame, the director allows us to grasp a fraction of what a lack of empathy is like, what a lack of life’s subjectivity and vitality is like. Then almost instantaneously, the scene shoots to the middle of a bustling street or a mall and everything seems overwhelmingly chaotic. In the mall we see women intently inspecting lip-gloss, clothes, and others that are paying for people to apply makeup on their faces. This high contrast seems almost suffocating, and every societal norm begins to appear more and more absurd. The streets seem overwhelmingly loud, the people seem boisterous and occupied with strange trivialities. In essence, the people become the aliens, so much so that we almost excuse Laura for her future merciless abductions that are to come.

There is a certain texture to the characters and masses of people that are abducted by Laura, that makes them believably distant, all existing on an entirely different plane than she is. The director Jonathan Glazer and writers skillfully chose to cast non-actors, lesser-known actors and even people that didn’t know they were being filmed for this exact purpose. It depersonalizes them, and allows the illusion of distance and objectivity to not be fractured by actor-audience familiarity. This group of men do not seem entirely selfish, but there is really no inkling of honesty within them. They are Epicurean in nature, every action seems to be linked to an expected return from Laura.

Halfway through the film, the audience is introduced to a new kind of character that Laura meets. He is a disfigured man that has never touched a woman before. He is known as “The Nervous Man,” and his disfigured face, paired with an untainted altruism separates him from the mass of victims that she has met thus far. She spares his life, and in doing so, indicates a budding humanism. Glazer describes him as a catalyst for one of the “central pillars of the film… the release of this character tapped into her bourgeoning consciousness.” This meeting ignites a curiosity within her that pulsates throughout the rest of the film: Each character she meets beyond this point is not preyed upon but observed. In turn, man seems closer than ever before, less absurd, and more benevolent. She later meets another man known as “The Quiet Man,” who emits the same warmth as seen earlier in “The Nervous Man.” This meeting begins to convince the audience that maybe honesty and altruism are inherent in mankind. With Laura’s experiences, the audience is essentially rediscovering the lightest parts of mankind, and begins to trust in these new definitions of man.

As Laura holds our hand through her personal evolution and varying exposure to life, it becomes hard for the viewer to gain an objective sense of what is true. With a climax that unravels our preconceptions even further, we are left in a void that seems strikingly familiar to the beginning of the film.

In the films beginning, it forced us to see humanity with a harsh objectivity: society seemed chaotic and absurd, and man seemed devoid of empathy. With experience we became more sympathetic: society seems to be less like a chaotic mass, but comprised of a multitude of characters, many of them truly altruistic. This leads us to a lot of ambiguity, which is the mastery of this film; it is a framework that leaves one huge, conspicuous question to ask:

What really lies under our skin?