The heady scent of apple cider is in the air, the foliage has begun its annual transition from life to death, and the Defector staff has once again retreated to a secret wooded location to conduct annual company meetings. In an effort to keep the blogs humming while we’re sequestered, we’ve curated a collection of woods-themed posts for your enjoyment.
Under The Skin is a 2013 movie directed by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson. It is a pretty simple story told with unsettling flair: A woman makes men pay for their lust, but slowly finds that she has a reserve of empathy that makes her reconsider everything she believes. Johansson plays an unnamed woman who lures lonely and unattached men back to an empty home, which transforms in the viewer’s eyes into a black void. As she seduces them and undresses, the men follow bleary-eyed, sinking into an unspecified black sludge. Once they are submerged, the audience finds out, they are drained of their bodies, with the first man to fall into the void becoming nothing but folded skin in the process. His organs and muscles and bones and blood are all filtered into a red mass, which appears to be fed into a trough, though the purpose is never quite revealed.
[Editor’s note: There will be spoilers for the entirety of Under The Skin below. You’ve been warned.]
As Johansson portrays her, the “alien” (the movie never makes it clear that she is an extraterrestrial, but context clues seem to point at that, so I will use that terminology as shorthand here) at the center of this story has no purpose but to be admired, at first. Her job, insomuch as she might have one, is to capture the male gaze and punish the aggressive pursuit of the men she finds throughout Glasgow. She performs human femininity as best she can, finding makeup and new clothes at the onset to make herself more appealing to her prey. She is quite good at this, and Glazer uses Johansson’s beauty as a weapon for the first half of the movie.
That begins to change, though, when she meets a man with facial tumors, whose gentleness in touch awakens something in the previously monotone protagonist. Though she does bring him back to the void, as she is meant to, he shows no fear. “Dreaming? Dreaming?” he asks, and she answers positively. It all does feel dreamlike, because nightmares are also dreams, but after catching her human visage in the reflection of a mirror, the protagonist decides to let this man go free. He then gets captured by the protagonist’s handler, but something breaks in her at this moment. That break is empathy.
It is here that Under The Skin becomes a tale of escape. The alien leaves the crowded city, full of men who leer at her, or buy her roses from a walking vendor in a traffic jam, and instead escapes to the Scottish Highlands. In a weaker movie, she would find freedom to explore the concept of empathy, and at first, that is what happens. A man on a bus sees her in distress, and offers to help her. He takes her shopping for food, cooks for her, gives her a bed for the night with a heater. They explore the woods and the countryside the next day, and upon returning to his home, they attempt to make love. Could this be the happy ending that this movie seemed to be building towards?
Well, no. The alien is confused by the process of sex, and after examining her human costume, she runs away, into the woods. Her confusion over whatever is happening to her is understandable, and her desire to be away from the men that she previously hunted makes sense. Unfortunately for her, the woods bring no salvation or absolution. She encounters a logger, who at first appears to be kindly and tells her that here she can find solitude. She encounters a cabin in the woods, and curls up to sleep under its walls, only to wake up to the same logger attempting to molest her.
And so she runs. Here, Glazer frames the camera behind Johansson, putting her within the barren trees of the cold forest, with nowhere to hide from the chasing logger. That this story takes place in the coldest part of the year is no coincidence; there is no warmth to be found in this bit of nature. The logger catches up to the alien and attempts to rape her, but as she tries to escape, he rips the skin of her human form, revealing a black void of sorts on her back. He runs away, leaving the alien to shred her costume herself, revealing a featureless alien with an inquisitive face staring at the ripped off Johansson mask, which continues to blink in confusion.
As she stares in silence at her own facade, the logger returns and douses her in gasoline and lights her on fire, spurring the alien to run and, eventually, fall and die covered in flames on the snow at the outskirts of the forest. The camera pans up to the smoke rising, and as the alien presumably dies, the movie ends. No happy ending here for our protagonist.
Under The Skin uses the isolated nature of the woods almost too bluntly: The logger’s assurance that the forest is “a nice place if you want some solitude” is twisted into the implied menace of “there is no one here to help you.” When he attempts to assault her, it is because there is no one around to stop him. (The alien finds his logging rig and attempts to honk the horn for help, but only the logger hears it.) Even as he leaves her in fear after exposing the alien “under the skin,” the protagonist doesn’t enjoy safety from his absence, instead finding only a moment of self-realization before her death.
Under The Skin is an anxious movie throughout, anxious about sexual violence and loneliness and the things humans do to each other. While it is easy to portray that anxiety inside the urbanity of Glasgow, where every shadowy corner could produce danger—at one point, a gang of teenage boys attempt to scare the protagonist and pry open the door to her van, though she is able to safely drive away; at another, she is dragged into a club by a group of drunk women, and the combination of strobe lights and Darude’s “Sandstorm” makes for a disorienting interlude—the woods of the movie’s climax provide a deeper sort of dread.
The protagonist has had a long night of the soul and yearns only to rest and recover. But even in a cabin deep in the heart of the forest, she is still not safe from the eyes and hands of men who want to claim her body, a body where she never feels totally in control. The movie provides no relief for her, and the woods serve only to catch the wind that billows the smoke from her corpse up and away. The woods remain unchanged because the enormity of their nature is impervious to even a story of an extraterrestrial finding her humanity. To me, that is as frightening a place as the black void that Johansson’s character uses to trap her prey in the first half of the movie, if not more so. After all, the woods are real, and they are as cruel as they can be beautiful.