Director: Jonathan Glazer
Studio: Film4, BFI
Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Lynsey Taylor Mackay
Under the Skin is odd, nervy, challenging, unsettling, and utterly astounding—a defiantly experimental, arty film that’s going to spark arguments and maybe even divide friends. The first movie in nine years from Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth), the wondrously idiosyncratic British director and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell have taken Michel Faber’s novel and pared it down to sinew and a beating heart. Sleepwalking as if preternaturally attuned to Mica Levi’s crazed, haunting score, Scarlett Johansson plays an intergalactic femme fatale, a woman who fell to Earth, if you will, since Under the Skin sometimes feels eerily reminiscent of work by Nicolas Roeg.
Johansson, whose performance is bold and riveting, is a chilly, enigmatic, emotionless creature who cruises around Scotland in a van vamping men, picking them up and luring them to their doom in a visual style so spectacularly stylized and artful that one is not soon likely to erase those images. Her wiles, at times including Johansson's fully exposing her incredible naked body, will, of course, attract many, but the movie extracts a steep price for any audience members’ cheap curiosity. Many of the men she entices are not actors, their reactions and conversations caught by a tiny hidden camera. It’s disturbing and electrifying at the same time. But then again, everything about the film is deliberately skewed and otherworldly, putting us in Johansson's character's position of experiencing for the first time the very weird world of earthlings.
Eventually, Johansson’s character picks up one unforgettable character and begins to show signs of, what, empathy? Feeling? Glazer and screenwriter Campbell aren't doling out any easy answers. Where is the space girl from? Why is she on Earth and why does she choose only men? Who is the man on the very cool motorcycle who watches and sometimes cleans up her messes? It’s okay that we're not given explanations. This film is a galaxy away from a typical Hollywood sci-fi film where we enter the theater and find that our entire meal is already cut up and digested for us.
Under the Skin trusts our dreams and nightmares to work things out. Somehow, Glazer manages to spin elements from cheap, irresistible sci-fi junk like Lifeforce or Species and wrap them in mystery almost worthy of Kubrick or Antonioni. It’s a great film and if a talent as big as Glazer's takes another nine years to make his next one, we'll be the lesser for it.