Film Review: Under the Skin

A serene alien hunting for men, Scarlett Johansson slithers through Jonathan Glazer's gaspingly beautiful and haunting body-horror hallucination like a curious predator perplexed by her prey.

There is a searching, watching passivity in Scarlett Johansson’s work that’s enlivened her greatest roles, particularly Lost in Translation. That quality isn’t just an added benefit of Jonathan Glazer’s newest and certainly oddest film, it’s the very sinew that strains (not always successfully) to hold this spacious, spiky concoction together. As the nameless alien who spends the film roaming the streets of Glasgow in a white van looking for men to take home, Johansson is a thing apart. She drives with a floating precision, as though somebody else were actually handling the car. Her conversations might trail off in a cloud of nebulousness, but her eyes remain pinned on the man right in front of her. She is a hunter, after all.

In the Michael Faber novel that Glazer adapted his film from, a woman seeks men to seduce and kill. It’s only revealed later on that she’s actually an alien in human form. The film snips out that bit of drama, literalizing Johansson’s alien nature right away. A sequence of Kubrickian psychedelia with close-ups of floating darkened orbs laid over scratchy ear-wig music and murmuring dialogue shows, albeit abstrusely, Johansson’s transformation. When Johansson appears, she’s naked in a blank white space, disrobing a dead woman with blank eyes and hair floating like spider webs. After that, with help from silent aliens in male human form slashing through the night on speeding motorcycles who operate like beaters on a pheasant hunt, she’s on the prowl.

A mulishly 1970s rumination riddled with Bowie-esque transformations, Under the Skin functions mostly as a ghostly procedural on this inexplicable hunt. Johansson, decked out with fatale dark curls and bright red lips, curls slowly through the Glasgow night and rain in a white van, peeling off solitary men she can entice into the vehicle. Pretending to ask for directions from the moth-like men enticed by this voluptuously mysterious figure, Johansson artlessly pushes her agenda—“Do you live alone?” “Are you here by yourself?” She stubbornly follows the clearly limited training provided for this alien environment in which she operates as a killer but also as an innocent. That in-between quality is encapsulated in a quietly brutal scene on a beach where she kills a man with a rock and hauls his body, leaving behind a doomed and squalling baby, with no more consideration than a human would give to swatting a fly. It also crops up in a later encounter with a young man with a severely disfigured face whom Johansson acts almost tender towards; the resulting push-pull of curiosity and fear is achingly rendered.

Using multiple hidden cameras, Glazer shot many of the van sequences on the fly with non-actors whom Johansson approached in character. Those lust- and fear-tinted negotiations accelerate with a raw intimacy. The men’s candor and discomfort (they often pull back uneasily in response to Johansson’s forward manner) sharply contrast with the hallucinogenic horror of what awaits those who follow Johansson back to her condemned-looking dwelling. Once inside the featureless and mirrored black-on-black infinity space, she draws teasingly away from the men while undressing; they follow trancelike, sinking slowly into the floor. Images of slow disappearances are repeated throughout, not just with the sequences with Johansson’s lust-blinded victims, but later when she experiences a crude awakening.

Before that turn, Under the Skin’s passive repetitions and teasing frights slide uncomfortably close to a distasteful brand of female body-horror fantasia. Glazer’s meticulously reality-cracking mannerisms and Johansson’s glassy watchfulness make for shivering visuals but nearly muffle the film completely. But those concluding stretches—set in a remote and rainy forest where Johansson begins to identify with, or least partially understand, her prey—help this elegant mystery of existence regain a dark purpose.

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