Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Star: Scarlett Johansson
Running time: 107 minutes
Men find Scarlett Johansson irresistible in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin. They're more than willing to hop into her van and ride along to wherever she pleases. Red flags don't exist alongside her playful flirtations and gorgeous appearance. She's strangely ready to bring any guy back to her house, but there's a problem: The men never leave.
That's the genre hook of Glazer's avant-garde, Stanley Kubrick-inspired new science-fiction film cum quasi-horror flick and midnight movie freakshow. You see, Johansson's character is some kind of alien, and the guys she lures to her "home" are the human victims she and her muted, motorcyclist overseer needs for whatever experiments they're performing. The reason why that description's so oblique is because, well, Under the Skin resists explanation. Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell—adapting the 2000 novel by Michel Faber—have no interest in clearing up anything on screen. The goal here is to unsettle, provoke thought, and use a career-best Johansson to examine the duality of a person's evil and good sides, even though said "person" is actually an extra-terrestrial. Though it's tough to tell from the exterior. Even when Johansson's character appears naked.
Got your attention now? Good, because Under the Skin is a film that deserves as many eyes as possible, and if the superficial, even cheap bait of Johansson's knockout looks brings viewers to see this one whenever A24 (the distribution company that just acquired it) releases it, all good. Under the Skin is a tough sell otherwise, an obtuse, atmospheric chamber piece that falls in line with experimental oddities like last year's Beyond the Black Rainbow.
After an opening 2001: A Space Odyssey nod, with Glazer's camera putting the audience inside an eyeball and surreally pulling back, the film kicks off with the aforementioned motorcyclist picking a dead female body up off the side of a highway in Scotland. Inside a glowing all-white room, the corpse is undressed by a lookalike (Johansson), who wears the dead girl's clothes and sets off on her way to abducting horny dudes. Under the Skin's weirdness moves into overdrive once she brings the first gentleman back home. (What's really weird? The men are all non-professional actors. They're just regular dudes that Johannson actually picked them up.) Leading him upstairs, she slowly, seductively walks into an all-black room that's endlessly long—staged in slow-motion by Glazer, and accompanied by the film's omnipresent blend of heartbeat bass and shrieking violins, the man gradually sinks into the pitch-black floor as he's following her. And then she leaves to obtain the next sucker.
That set-up repeats itself a few more times, until the otherworldly temptress happens to pick up a disfigured, timid young man, to whom she exudes tenderness and, ultimately mercy when she lets him go. From there, Under the Skin's real narrative intentions come to light: What happens when a villain suddenly gains a conscience? Especially an antagonist who, in her non-human state, doesn't even understand herself. It's in the film's latter half where Johansson's hypnotic and quietly layered performance becomes unquestionably excellent. At first, she's completely in control, a sexual predator with no remorse and a cold, calculated determination towards homicide. Gradually, though, as the character begins figuring herself out, Johansson flips a switch and turns vulnerable and scared. There's a specific moment where the switch occurs, and it's one of many that Johansson sells without any dialogue.
As straightforward as that may sound, trust—Under the Skin is wall-to-wall bonkers. Scenes with little action and zero words go on longer than you'd expect, to at times frustrating lengths. The sound design immediately taps into the hallucinogenic, orchestral unease heard in movies like The Shining and never alternates tones. Even the alien mythology is, at best, perplexing—a late-game revelation about the nature of her being only makes you scratch your head even harder right before the end credits roll. That's all surely how Glazer wants it, too. Under the Skin creeps into the mind rich from its first images and lingers.
Sure, the actual story is muddled and too bizarre for its own good, but who cares? Sometimes, genre heads need a good, exquisitely shot, totally fucking nutty head trip. And, of course, Johansson in the buff certainly doesn't hurt.
Artistically minded cinephilia and shallow frat-boy logic—how's that for duality?