Under the Skin
Directed by: Jonathan Glazer
Written by: Walter Campbell (screenplay), Michel Faber (novel)
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
In Under the Skin, Scarlett Johansson plays a wolf that doesn’t quite know how to wear sheep’s clothing. She is an alien prowling Glasgow and the surrounding Scottish countryside in a white van, seducing and luring unsuspecting men to their death.
Jonathan Glazer’s third feature, based on Michel Faber’s novel, is a gender inverse on a fairly common horror/thriller premise. The story is told in long, bleak stretches, the camera accentuating the way the creature attempts to move and act human. Johansson’s performance is crucial to this strategy. She nails the way the alien flips an “on” switch to turn a dead-eyed stare into a warm, welcoming woman when she spots prey. Glazer hints at an eroticism with his camera movement that the actress deliberately pushes away.
The most sexually tinged scenes are the bloodless killings. ScarJo’s victims, blinded by lust, pursue her into what transforms into a totally black stage. They each leave a string of clothes as they lurch across it, but the men sink into the floor and become trapped. The rest of Scotland isn’t much more colorful save for a reliably flashy night club.
Despite the color palette, this is Glazer’s most visually accomplished and altogether thrilling film to date. When I watched it I had no idea that many of the interactions that the alien has with men were filmed using civilians and a hidden camera. There is a cool, confident stillness to the images that rejects that often on-the-fly filmmaking aesthetic. The performances, on the other hand, seem unforced and genuinely spontaneous.
Glazer and screenwriter Walter Campbell capture the alien predator’s bizarre point of view by making it clear that she is trying to fit in but can’t. The result is an odd uncanny valley effect that Johansson’s star power only enhances. This is evidenced in fairly standard alien movie scenes, like when she tries to eat human food and vomits it up, but also in her everyday movement and posture. Under the Skin would be nothing without her blank yet inquisitive stares.
The alien eventually begins to unravel during this vague man-harvesting mission. In one of the most haunting and moving scenes I’ve seen in recent months, she stops to talk to a very deformed, quiet man on a rainy night. She treats him as she does any of the other victims, but the script lingers on their interaction more. She asks him if he gets lonely, then grabs his hand and caresses her face and neck with it. The man’s darting eyes and nervous, muttered reactions are heartbreaking.
After this interaction, she lets the man leave her den, naked and wondering where he is. He’s eventually collected and (presumably) killed by one of the undeveloped, motorcycle-riding henchmen who (presumably) clean up after her. After that she wanders and begins trying more and more human things, including eating, riding the bus and sex. The movie rejects any notion of redemption or change, though. It bounces humanity and their emotions off its central character instead of forcing her to become one of us.
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