I had a tough time thinking up what to say at the start of this review of Jonathan Glazer’s new film Under the Skin. It isn’t so much that I have nothing to say about it, but rather that I found it difficult to adequately articulate in a simple introduction how incredible the film truly is. It’s one of those instances where a film sweeps you up and sort of catches you off guard because of its mood, its method, its aesthetic, and it’s total abstract being that you can’t help but want to talk about it with anybody close enough to you with ears, and yet you have absolutely no idea where to start.
For some context—my most recent experience of this, other than Under the Skin, was Shane Carruth’s stunning and tragically lyrical Upstream Color, which came out last year. That film, much like this one, begs to be experienced rather than plainly talked about because the impact of its true essence is invariably lost at some point from the screen to the page. Glazer has made a haunting and evocative film of twisted beauty, an anti-sci-fi/horror reflection of human nature and outsider loneliness that struck a beautifully subversive chord with me—one that I or any of its viewers won’t soon forget.
The film’s premise and the way Glazer shot most of it may sound like an off-putting and schlocky gimmick, yet the director was wise enough to let the mesmerizing stillness of the story flourish in the face of mere narrative and technique. Scarlett Johansson (in quite possibly her best and most measured role) ostensibly plays an alien who takes human form in a cheap wig, ruby lipstick, fur coat, and acid washed jeans whose sole purpose is to drive around a drab and dreary Scotland preying on unsuspecting men. While monitored by another vaguely threatening alien watcher who is outfitted in deliberately space-suit-esque motorbike gear, she brings her victims back to a spatiotemporal void and casts them into oily amniotic fluid until their bodies rapidly decompose. Trust me, the execution of this premise is gimmicky sci-fi insofar as 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Man Who Fell to Earth are gimmick sci-fi, which is to say it’s quite possibly the farthest thing from it.
In order to capture her interactions with these men, Glazer cooked up a candid camera-type scheme where small cameras were hidden throughout the van to let Johansson-in-disguise interact in real-time with unwitting participants. The ruse absolutely never comes across and a stunt, instead giving her character the freedom to analyze and inspect her human targets with an unbelievably fascinating authenticity. The biggest kudos go to Johansson, whose outward charm masks an underlying danger that she handles with a perfectly understated poise. It’s a performance made out of a sincere glance or a knowing affectation. She both flawlessly embodies the femme fatale identity and takes advantage of its implications in a role rich with gendered subtext that’s sure to incite the minds and desires of many an intellectual.
Johansson’s unnamed alien intently wanders and silently ponders her unknown nocturnal landscape, only gradually gaining an uneasy feeling of empathy towards her prey. Possibly my favorite detail, at least as an American viewer, are the nearly impenetrable Scottish accents from the other cast members which lend an even more otherworldy quality to our planet than what’s already there.
Who are these beings and why do they act like they do anyway? Glazer never makes a definitive statement in his film about what it means to be human, but rather conveys a sense of yearning in trying to understand it. Under the Skin subtly presents perhaps the ultimate feeling of being the Other, the outsider, someone who is detached from the world and coming to terms with the indiscriminate—and sometimes fatal—peculiarities or susceptibility of humankind.
Its aesthetic patience and mysteriously engrossing tempo imbues the film with a sense of mundane voyeurism that peels away once Johansson’s character begins to consciously challenge her enigmatic duty in the face of human experience. She’s observed humankind under a microscope and is steadily transfixed by what she sees. This unnerving feeling is helped immeasurably by Mica Levi’s jarringly pulsating score, which, in context, further disorients viewers with an unusual dissonance reminiscent of Jonny Greenwood’s piercing score for PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.
Glazer’s path has been a strange one. After the roaring British gangster flick Sexy Beast in 2000 he settled on the lilting fairy tale Birth in 2004, and allegedly spent the last ten years trying to properly crack into Under the Skin and get it to the screen. Thankfully Glazer is a determined guy because the film is worth the wait, and I don’t want to jinx it, but even if it takes him another ten years to make another film I’d gladly wait for it. Under the Skin is truly something special, and I still have no idea where to begin talking about it.