Updated Mon, May 19, 2014 5:12 pm
As it happens, both of these unconventional films are set in the UK, and both work variations on a theme of driving. Both show there's still some originality left in movies in 2014. Even if neither quite satisfies, I find I can't quite shake either of them.
In this drama written and directed by Steven Knight, the screenwriter of memorable joints like Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things, we find ourselves in a car maintaining a steady pace through the night. A steady pace: The driver, Ivan Locke, watches the speed limit. (This is a careful man.) For the next hour and a half we will be in the car with him.
Locke is played by Tom Hardy. For those of us who've had Hardy pegged as film's next electrifying, mad, scary actor--the kind you can't take your eyes off--ever since his unforgettable turn as the psychotic 'Bronson,' the prospect of a Hardy one-man show is exciting. Locke is in fact a meaty role for Hardy, but it's a surprisingly subtle piece as well.
A drama is playing out in the car's floating walls, though Locke appears calm. (Appearing calm is part of what makes him good at his job.) As the car fills with disembodied Bluetooth voices we piece together that Locke is the leader of a concrete pouring team, and that it is his intention to abandon his post on the eve of the biggest pour in European history.
Still, he intends to make sure the pour goes well over the phone, out of a sense of duty. As he shouts into the phone at one point, one wrong move can cause everything to crash down around you.
Actually, he has made that one wrong move. That's why he finds himself out on the road this night. I won't say what he's done.
I should say that this is not an action film. If Locke is being chased, it’s by the demon of his late father. Hardy is frightening when, spittle flecking, he froths at the old man about digging him up and killing him himself. (These furious one-way discussions are all in his head, though. Outwardly, he is calm.)
Locke's voice, that rich burr that was so scary when Hardy deployed it as Batman's enemy Bane, here consoles, soothes, but remains utterly authoritative. That's true whether he is dealing with his enraged boss, a hysterical, increasingly drunken underling, or his own wife.
Only when speaking to his son does his voice quaver, alighting on warm fatherly authority but losing its footing, slipping off. A tear drops down his cheek. To a person, each caller remarks on how unlike him is his behavior this night.
Reached at dinner, an annoyed councilman agrees to make an important phone-call for Locke only because of the impression Locke made when they'd met: as a good man. Am I a good man? Proving it is another reason he's out all night.
At times I wished for more visual and situational variety, but that claustrophobia and the unfolding in real time are inseparable from the film's intended effects. Using Locke's windshield as canvas, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos paints expressive bursts of color with headlights, streetlights, the lonely glow of the dashboard glow.
As a psychological portrait and a performance exercise for Tom Hardy, Locke can reach the point of fascination.
Under the Skin
Here's a quite odd, oddly beautiful film by Jonathan Glazer, that thoughtful director of Sexy Beast and Birth. Based on Michael Faber's novel, it's science fiction. Yet it works by gazing upon the familiar stuff of our world as if it were alien.
In the beginning we experience some kind of eclipse. A seed penetrates a membrane, fertilizing a crescent moon. We could be looking at inner space, at a womb, or we could be looking at outer space, at planets aligning.
There is a bright light; a dark pool expands. Now it is a startled human iris. Now we're rushing at a burning star, only it becomes a speeding motorcyclist. In some kind of white room a nude woman stands over a paralyzed woman. The prone one might be dead: she does not blink. Suddenly a tear streaks down her face.
Unsettling music by violinist Mica Levi skitters under it all. She's woven into her music a suggestion of that strange alien frequency emitted by the monolith in 2001. Her music brings you to the edge of sadness, then a sinister undercurrent comes out of nowhere and drags you under.
The woman we saw standing in the white room arrives at the bottom of an escalator. This is Scarlett Johansson, irresistible in bangs. The murmur of a shopping mall fills our senses. The camera looks over her shoulder. (Throughout this movie we will see the world through her eyes.)
She picks out a fur, a hot pink blouse, jeans that fit just right. She sits in a SUV and applies lipstick. She is ready.
She begins tooling around the streets of Glasgow. Speaking with a London accent, she asks directions of local men. (Glazer often shot with hidden cameras, wanting to immerse Johansson in the real world, hoping to record on film how people behave when they're not being watched.)
If a fellow is interested, she asks him to hop in. Maybe he could take her there himself? Of course he is interested. But in the next cut, the passenger seat is empty. Wait, where'd he go?
At one point the camera follows her as she leads another man into a dark building. He thinks he's about to get the cookie. The camera (and the man) sink into black.
It doesn't take long to realize that there is something very off about her. There's an inhuman lack of empathy. A baby cries on a rocky beach, helpless, exposed, alone. We respond on a primal level. She ignores the baby.
You could say the film's arc traces the closing of this empathy gap. During her short time she gets to have various types of human experiences. She encounters man at his best and at his worst.
Perhaps one experience is more precipitous than all the others: She meets a very unusual man, whom she sees very differently than we do.
The news about Under the Skin, of course, is that Johansson gets naked here, for the first time on film. It's not enough, though, merely to say that her nudity in this picture is not gratuitous. Her naked human body is the expression in visual form of the themes of the movie. Her skin is a disguise she uses to hunt, but it is also the medium through which she experiences touch. (Touch is one of the things the movie is about.)
"Beauty is only skin deep." "We're all the same under the skin." These are cliches, but her naked body fleshes these expressions out and embodies, if you will, their truth.
And so it's okay, even proper, to say it's a pleasure to see Johansson without her clothes on, so long as we acknowledge the level on which she dares to expose herself here. It deserves more than adolescent tittering.
Glazer's film works a bit like a haunting dream that you can't explain and you can't quite shake. He's that rarity in today's pictures: an artist.
Born in Athens, Ohio, Scott Pfeiffer has lived in Chicago since 1993. He did a minor in film at Ohio University back in the day. These days, he knocks about Chi-town, taking in film, music and theater. Read his other reviews at The Moving World.