Under The Skin

Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast , 2000), is not one of the world’s most prolific directors, but what he does produce is always noteworthy and of merit, even if it requires you to work with him. Under the Skin is such a movie. One of the first things to make itself obvious in the film is the use of light and colours, either the extreme whiteness (and also black) of her environment, an area without seems or borders, we see only light, or in the scenes of what we take as her lair, we see a dark void absent any obvious light source, or surfaces. The opening sequence takes us from the sterile bright white of an alien environment (or consciousness, we don’t know) to the dull, dreary urban motorway scenes of our aliens (we take the bike rider as being another alien) driving around mainly urban Scotland. While the picture painted by her travelling is not one of joy and happiness but rather a cold searching. The atmosphere, the scenery and even some of the people encountered along the way, are not the type that you would put on a “Visit Scotland” poster, they are real and ordinary with nothing much to sell them.

How long she is on the planet we don’t know, but she is able to drive a Transit van and communicate in flawless English (for what little dialogue there is in the movie). Scarlett Johansson (Her, 2013), play what is a challenging role brilliantly, her acting is visual, with little chance to add to scenes through dialogue. She seems “comfortable in her skin” or so to speak, yet she spends her days driving around looking for people who will not be noticed missing too quickly. As we see her driving it becomes obvious she’s is driving for a reason, she is hunting. Like a spider, she lures her victims to her, first chatting to them to get them in to her van and then into her “lair”. Her lair is a dark void, in the same sense of the white scenes were of a white void, with no obvious dimensions which swallows up her victims.

The film is almost silent, with any dialogue sparse and only as needed, at least 70% to 80% of the movie is non-dialogue. After the usual initial small talk we see her with her victims, back in the “eternal void” while we think we are used to the void, we see that there is more to it. Her mail victims never reach or connect with her, indeed as they approach her, they are subsumed into an liquid, best described as akin to embryonic fluid. She walks over it as if it is solid, it is only as her later that the realise that the liquid is a storage area, not visible from above, but from within. We are not told if this is her natural environment or some type of psychological analogue of what is happening. One thing you will notice is the cold emotionless performance by Johansson. We observe her from an emotional distance, we’re along for the ride, but not part of the experience. If you are looking for an action packed shoot-em-up, go look somewhere else, If you are looking for a lost Kubrick, then it will suit you perfectly. We are only allowed to observe this movie, always kept at a safe distance. As the movie progresses we get the feeling she is less familiar with her surroundings, or at least less comfortable, indeed the scene in the woods shows just how alien she is, literally and figuratively.

The dialogue, where it happens is clipped and pared back to the bare minimum, only used for what is needed. Indeed one of the movies pivotal parts is where here latest victim is descending in to the liquid and sees another older victim, now disfigured by his time in the liquid. Rather than recoil, the new victim makes his way to the other and without words they reach out and touch. The connection to the other, whoever they are is preferable to isolation.

One cannot help but wonder if the dark area and fluid, and even the bright white scene are her natural environment, the place where she is calm and safe, a place of isolation. Whereas out and about on Earth she is surrounded by dimensions, noises, colours, sounds and tastes etc. This environment is alien to her, just as her’s is to us. We also notice the difference in styles of person, the talking youths eager for her company, these are ordinary people, using ordinary lines, but still against her silence.

In some senses it reminds of (Upstream Colour (Carruth, 2013), the visuals are a significant part of the story, even surpassing the dialogue. We are also left to discover the movie as it progresses, working out the clues and interpretations as we move along. Aliens (in Earth based movies) generally fall into one of two categories, the big nasty evils one who want to destroy us, or the cute one, usually lost or homesick, Here we might have a mixture of both, or do we. We have a creature which looks like is will do no harm, but we know the skin she inhabits is not her own and like a spider, the males she beguiles are lured to her lair and trapped.

It is hinted by visuals that she is not alone and that there are other aliens, but this is never confirmed, such is the movie. This is not a movie to fill a wet Saturday evening, no you watch this only if you are willing to work at it and take in all it has to deliver.

This is a work which has been well assembled, superbly acted by Johansson with cinematography which not only compliments the acting but is a necessary part of the story, of the work. Not the easiest movie to watch, but not the worst by any measure, indeed it is one which rewards the effort.

Calvary

Written and directed by John Michael Mc Donagh, this is the second of a loosely based trilogy. The subject matter is not connected, rather locations associated with McDonagh’s background. The first installment was “The Guard” (2011). Described as a black comedy, it might be better described Dark thriller with a touch of dark humour thrown in.

Although described as “dark” this is a very entertaining movie, which from the start drags in the viewer and keeps us alongside to the very end. Brendan Gleeson’s character is that of Father James, the local parish priest in a small rural parish in Sligo. Boarding the coast, there are some fantastic backdrops (having spent two years living in the area, I can say the scenery is every bit as photographed for the film. Fr. James we learn came to the Priesthood later in life, after his wife died. As with any normal person, he has his daemons, he is open about his hard drinking ways in the past, now he controls his life and habits. As “normal” as he is, the villagers, his parish, are what can best be described as an “odd bunch”.

The film opens in confession, here we learn that one of his parishioners was abuse as a child by a priest. In the parishioner’s quest for vengeance, he has decided to kill a priest, not just any priest, but a good priest, someone people will notice. He is told he has just over a week to live, they even make an appointment for the following Sunday on the beach. We are not clear if he actually knows who his killer is. Following a discussion with his less than helpful Bishop (David McSavage), the Bishop feels that the confession was not valid, as absolution was not present and so he should report the issue.

Instead Fr. James uses the week to put his house in order and try find a way to stop what is going to happen. In to the mix comes his adult daughter (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Homes, 2009), recovering from a suicide attempt. We see through her that his relationship with her has been strained over time and in deed still shows some stress marks but they know they have something to work out and so do. They treat each other as adults.

Over the coming days, we see Fr. James deal with his parishioners, the wife beaten by her lover, the lover who has no remorse and even the cuckolded husband, who is quite happy for his wife to have an affair, as it takes the pressure off him and basically they can get on with life. As part of his ministering to his flock he visits an old American writer who is living in a remote area accessible only by boat. While bringing the old writer his messages, he makes a request for a gun (Walter PPK). After some banter Fr. James says he will try and see what he can do. In the course of the next day he pays a visit to the local Police Inspector, to borrow a gun. The inspector is at home, with a male prostitute. Fr. James is not fazed by this or the prostitute’s behaviour. The prostitute is played by Owen Sharpe, I mention this because of his recent role in “’71” playing the young IRA killer, a completely different role, both done well.

As the week goes on, he has to deal with his curate, Fr. Leary (David Wilmot, Vikings 2013) who is not exactly the caring type, more concerned with image rather than substance. Fr. James is rather blunt in his opinion of him as a priest. Indeed one of the defining characteristics of Fr. James is his bluntness. When we see him with the financier on the edge of arrest (Dylan Moran, Black Books, 2000) who is trying to put things right (in his own way). Fr. Leary fawns to Moran’s character, while Fr. James just basically sees through the acts and gets down to business naming a figure and looking for the check.

As the week goes on, we start to see things taking a chilling turn, with his local church being burnt down and even his pet dog killed, we are not told who is responsible for these acts. We see the tensions mount to breaking point, while we also see moments of clam and belief, no more so that the French couple of holiday who were involved in a car crash, the husband is killed, while the wife escapes unhurt, we see in her a person of Faith and in so doing also see his Faith, it is real to him.

He has no airs and graces, when one of the village odd-balls, Milo Herlihy (Killian Scott, Love/Hate 2010-2014) sees Fr. James in church to ask for his advice regarding women; the conversation turns surreal. He basically has urges, possibly to violence , to control these urges he has decided to join the army, which he is convinced is full of psychopaths anyway and so should be a natural home for himself, Fr. James attempts to bring him back to reality by suggesting he read certain magazines, only to have milo say he has already tried them. What we see is a man casting no judgements and genuinely trying to help. His chats with the atheist (and cynical ) doctor, (Aidan Gillen, Love/Hate 2010-2013) also give us an insight to his view on life and his outlook on things in general, while at the same time not forcing a believe or rationalisation on the other person.

In dealing with his parishioners and even his daughter (and by extension himself) we do see a “good Priest”. Fr. James’s character is no Saint, he has his flaws and weaknesses like any person. He is essentially a person who is trying to help is parishioners without overstepping. However the various scenarios thrown up by the locals work at both levels, firstly allowing for a local and immediate (personal response) but also causing us to see the reaction of a kind and compassionate man, even if one who does not suffer fools to gladly.

Among all of the local community there is one who stands out, the altar boy, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane, the Guard, 2011) he stands out for one reason, essentially he has reprised his role in The Guard, as a comic foil for Gleeson. This time it is a little more subtle but equally as good.

This movie shifts to a climax which can only end one of two ways, Fr. James alive or dead. A good man alive or dead. What we saw was a week in the life of a small parish, all seemingly tranquil and calm while below the surface there is violence, loneliness, suffering and pain and only one man has an idea as to what extent the people of the village are suffering in their various ways, just as he is dealing with his own daemons.

It is felt Gleeson might get an Oscar nomination for this role, he deserves it

9/10

Citizen X

This is perhaps one of the more under-appreciated movies out there. Originally made in 1995 as a HBO TV movie, it has since gone on to win a cult DVD following since its release. The movie is set against the background of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which parallels the case as in runs over a period of about 7 years. The movie is based on true events, the extent to which is always up to question. People are dying, children are being murdered and the police are getting nowhere. One junior forensic detective , Viktor Burakow (Stephen Rea, V for Vendetta, 2005) believes they have a serial killer. He takes his opinion to his Superior, Col. Fetisov (Donald Sutherland, Space Cowboys, 2000) who although reluctant to believe Burakow, reports the possibility to the local Communist party officials over-looking the work of the police. They are emphatic that there are no serial killers in Russia. End of discussion. It may have been the end of the discussion, but not the murders. The murders sting out over a number of years. In the early years of the investigation Burakov’s biggest hurdle was the Communist party who would not admit to such crimes in Mother Russia. The local officials ordered the rounding up of others who they saw as degenerates and likely suspects. Non had anything to do with the murders, more dead-ends, more time wasted. Burakow never gives up the search, often on his own and against the wishes of the Party. Josh Ackland (firelight, 1997) is the stalwart party official holding things back, loyal to the end.

As the murders progress and Burakow’s progress and resources continue to be limited, we get to know the murderer, Jeffrey DeMunn, The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) and what is driving him. What holds Burakow up against the others is his willingness to continuously challenge the system in order to have the resources necessary to do his job. His relationship with Fetisov, though friendly and professional most of the time is often fraught with tension. Fetisov is the person who has to deal with the party officials in Moscow and locally. Despite his continually limiting Burakov and calming him down, he actually has his back. Over the years when all seems lost, Burakov out of the blue gets his resources, he even gets promoted and has staff assigned. Fetisov, who, although often locks horns with Burakov over his demands ultimately supports him all along the way. What Fetisov brings to the affair is his ability to manage the situation. As the Soviet Union fell apart, he knew which vacuums to step in to and how to control the situation working it to provide the support Burakov needs. It is telling that the support is not just in terms or resources but also directly to Burakov. He is Fetisov’s man, he is the person to lead the investigation . Lead it he does, with little or no equipment he struggles but never gives up, however long it takes Burakov will keep hunting with whatever tools he has available As this happens we are conscious of the years and victims passing through his hands, through dogged police work, forensics and finally having access to the experts and testing he needed, the team slowly begin to make progress. As the investigation progresses and they zero in on their suspect, they need to get to know and understand him.

To this end Burakov manages to persuade his superiors to allow him bring in a phsyco-analist in the form of Dr. Alexander Bukhanovsky (Max von Sydow, Minoroty Report, 2002) who profiles the suspect and helps to track him. Bukhanovsky’s report on the profile of the killer, gives Burakov the insight he needs. Old fashioned police work allows them to progress. Burakov eventually has authorisation to put men in areas likely be attractive to the killer, it works. Once they have their suspect, they need the evidence to convict him, the need to know if he is sane enough to stand trial. The murderer, Chikatilo, is a cool calm character who has not given them much to go on. Bukhanovsky must work his magic, talking with their murder suspect, getting to know him and what drives him. They eventually manage to get our murderer to reveal, the bodies of many of his victims. This is a thriller to an extent, it is also a police procedural, but it is more than these, it is a good solid drama expertly crafted; written and directed by Chris Gerolmo (Certain Prey, 2011). From the very start we are introduced to Burakov as a person, we are encouraged to feel his frustration and smile when we see how Fetisov has been toying with him. Indeed the person who we thought would be another one of those party functionaries, turn out to be Burakov’s biggest supporter, even when their backs are to the wall. Fetisov, effectively “takes the heat” for Burakov, despite what the junior officer thinks. What makes this film stand out is the drama, not just the drama of capturing the suspect but the drama and effects of the changing environment, from denial and party politics to acceptance and doors being opened to ensure what needs to be done can be done.

Gerolmo gives us a glimpse of the conditions people were living and working under, while at the same time giving a vision of a society possibly changing for the better, people like Burakov would be allowed to do their jobs. Stephen Rea is under-stated and calm throughout, his character is painstaking and methodical, not one to go out on a limb, unless there was a good reason why and a high chance of success. Von Sydow’s Bukhanovsky gives us the intellectual science that was needed to finally put the pieces together. DeMann’s murder is a master-class in control, he play the part of the serial killer exactly giving vision to the analysis the detectives are painting, as the analysis deepens, the detectives get closer to their man, understanding him, anticipating him. Buy it or stream it, you will not be disappointed in this film. Just sit-back and let it bring you along. Appreciate the acting and the script. The pace never lags, and even in the darkness there are moments of light with the script and relationship between Burakov and Fetisov. A solid 8/10. Possibly 9