Jonathan Glazer’s strange, haunting, and mesmerizing Under the Skin is a triumph of visual storytelling, like few films since the silent era have been able to accomplish. It’s filled with moments of spellbinding wonder, and if you are open-minded enough to let it wash over you and experience the film as a series of images, you will be in for a rare cinematic treat.
This is not a film that bothers to set up a conventional narrative, to go from Point A to Point B, although when it’s over, you can think back on it and realize that it actually does tell a story, but it does so with mostly images and sounds (rarely the sounds of dialogue, which is spare). What little setup there is involves Scarlett Johansson, perfectly cast as this literal otherworldly being, who for unexplained reasons has set herself up in the mountainous towns of a very scenic Scotland, where she has taken the place of her predecessor to go about the wearying task of hunting down young single men and leading them back to her apartment. What happens to them then is for you to experience (or try to interpret) for yourself, as those eery moments inside her house are some of the movie’s most strikingly memorable. None of this “plot,” is really explained however, leaving it up to the viewer to piece together what’s going on, and if you’re as struck by the mood and atmosphere of the film as I was, you’ll realize that you truly can start to follow the events, just by watching this externally perfect female alien as she goes about her long, not entirely aimless days.
Scarlett Johansson’s never been particularly known for her acting talent, her image having been more or less entirely absorbed by her voluptuous looks and sensuality. But here, cast as a surreal creature not of this world or any other, it seems to suit her screen presence like no role she’s had since perhaps Lost in Translation. Standing apart from humanity in a body she doesn’t understand would of course turn out to be the perfect part for someone who’s always seemed a little out of this world anyway. As the predator who preys on men for some vague, arbitrary assignment we’re not fully aware of and can never comprehend, I was reminded at times in this movie of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, another science fiction story that had to be experienced rather than simply seen. Glazer creates some lasting moments of awe and visual splendor in this film that I will not soon forget, and as an audience member the pictures wash over you in ways that are more felt than observed. There’s the sequence of Johansson dragging a body from the rocks of the ocean’s waves while disregarding a crying baby on the shore, or the shocking fates of the various men who meet their doom in Scarlett’s apartment that recall the vivd imagination of David Lynch’s worst nightmares in Eraserhead (another clear influence on parts of this film).
Finally, just when you’ve grabbed hold of the concept at play and are wondering how far this premise can sustain itself, the unnamed being undergoes a sudden change of heart, and the story shifts from being one of dreamlike horror to one of self-discovery and lost meaning. We begin to not just observe but question her thoughts and shifting emotions, a feat even more impressive considering the near silent performance that Johansson gives until the movie’s unforgettable and startling conclusion. At this point we’re so enshrined in her headspace that we are starting to sympathize, if not identify, with her still unknowable predicament. It’s a gradual shift, but it happens in strange and serendipitous fashion. Under the Skin is bound to confound a lot of people, but as a piece of visual filmmaking, it’s a hypnotic achievement and a must see for serious moviegoers.