Review: 'Under the Skin'
After her star-making role as a blossoming teen in 2001's Ghost World, I think we all knew Scarlett Johansson would grow up to be an alien who seduces and kills Scottish men. You may know Under the Skin as "the movie where Scarlett Johansson is very naked," but that doesn't come close to doing it justice. It's the latest feature from director Jonathan Glazer, who takes all his dream sequences from Sexy Beast and turns them up to 11 in this beautiful, hypnotic tale. Calling the plot 'sparse' is an exaggeration; very little information is provided as to what's going on. There may be no more than 15 minutes of dialogue total throughout the 108-minute runtime. What we do know is that Johansson, under the supervision of at least one other skin-cloaked alien, is making a life out of luring men into some sort of liquid-filled chamber for preservation and harvesting. We don't know why. We don't know for how long. We don't know who she is or what part she's playing in this invasion of sorts. We just see Johansson driving around in a van, searching for independent, unattached men who no one will miss. When she finds the perfect match, a smile and some kind words are all it takes to get them back into her lair. But even that minimal description feels far too robust. There's barely a whiff of science in this fiction. The fact that they're aliens is more discerned than revealed. We barely get a glimpse of the aforementioned lair. The scenes where her sacrifices are ensnared are more illusory than anything; the men never put up a fight or notice anything terrifying about the utterly terrifying situation they're currently find themselves in. It all appears unreal, except for the fact that Johansson is stone serious. She masterfully portrays a character that's as confused and unsure as her audience. Through little more than facial expressions, she comes across as understanding her mission and its importance but also feeling an odd fascination towards the human race. It might be pity at first, when she stumbles upon a deformed potential sacrifice who perhaps doesn't deserve his fate, or maybe she just wants one of these false connections to be real. But alas, her alien body cannot handle sex nor cake. And, as always, aliens who try to become human end up encountering tragedy. The acting is mostly a one-woman show, but it's the accoutrements that make Under the Skin shine. I'm not going to mince words here: Mica Levi's score is one of the finest in cinematic history. I walked out of this film the same way I left There Will Be Blood: in stunned awe at how much the music set the tone for everything onscreen. The dread invoked in the first hour, of not knowing what's going on, ceases to exist without the unsettling strings and eerie tones put in place by Levi. And Daniel Landin, the director of photography, deserves just as much praise. Long shots of the Scottish wilderness, lingering glimpses of Johansson's calm-yet-doubting face, every single moment we spend in the sacrificial alien chamber; Landin and Glazer take the quiet and fill it with visual gorgeousness, populating the screen with a detailed, lush world that we can barely understand. The ultimate message of Under the Skin is unclear, which proved vexing at first. Almost exclusively focused on a female protagonist who dominates men but succumbs to desires for life, love and lust, there's an easy gender-studies interpretation to be made. Plus probably a dozen other theories with just as much merit. But more than anything, it's the cinematic version of a brilliant painting that appears bare to some but leaps to life when engaged with. It's not meant to frustrate or push away; its brilliance is there for those willing to embrace it. Crafted with expert skill by Glazer, everything on screen feels like his final decision, his
interpretation, exactly what he wanted to create. In short, it's as powerful a fully realized vision as the cinema can offer.