It took Jonathan Glazer nine years to put together his film follow up to 2004’s Birth. Bursting back onto the scene during last year’s festival circuit, Glazer has emerged from a decade returning to the music videos and commercials that made his name with the Scarlett Johansson vehicle Under the Skin. Johansson plays an unnamed extra-terrestrial being disguised as a woman who relies on human flesh for her sustenance. Stalking the Scottish countryside in a plain, white van, Johansson seduces men to lure them back to her lair. She is always watched from afar by a mysterious motorcyclist, himself also an alien. The film chronicles her hunt until a chance encounter begins to change her outlook on life.
There isn’t a whole lot of plot in Under the Skin, and Glazer decides to approach the subject matter from a more abstract perspective, focusing on a unique visual and aural presentation to convey the story’s development. The film opens with what could best be described as a conceptual birth sequence which sets the bar for the sort of artistic experience to come. As a white dot slowly grows from the middle of the screen, morphing into what must be some sort of spacecraft, a medium pitch drone from the theater speakers, punctuated by the guttural noises of Johansson attempting to accustom herself to the English tongue, washes over the audience. It’s loud, abrasive and almost entirely without context, a gatekeeper of sorts that lacks the visual language to back up or justify the sonic ordeal. It’s a statement of intent, a calling card for the mood and tone of what is to follow. It is disorienting and punishing and full of an unspeakable dread. It’s a living, undulating nightmare.
Things do not particularly calm down once Under the Skin begins to resemble a more conventional movie. As the visuals coalesce into a comprehensible (if heightened) form, the sound design and score kick into overdrive. It would be simple, yet inelegant for the film to outright state the central themes and development of Johansson’s character and her difficulty adjusting to a new body in an alien world via dialogue or narration; luckily Glazer has loftier goals. The sound does all the work, dominating the proceedings and reinforcing the cold distance of Glazer’s visual motifs. The dialogue is muffled and often incomprehensible, and yet still incredibly loud in the mix, as if Johansson’s ears were still developing the ability to cope with so much stimuli.
Visually, the film is all about distance. Whether it’s a particularly harrowing wide shot of a family fighting to escape a particularly nasty ocean current against a sullen, cloudy sky, or the heavy use of reflection to frame a shadow of Johansson’s face against the events of the world outside the window of her van, the film always keeps the viewer far from the action, even when right in the middle of it. There are times that the visuals stray back toward a more blatantly science fiction element, but that coldness, that distance always remains. The set construction reinforces these themes; the sets and locations are wide and open (even when indoors, the walls are often either not present at all, or shrouded in inky blackness), pointing to the characters’ insignificance framed against a giant and unfeeling world. It’s a fascinating dichotomy when combined with the sound design, a mix of cold detached predation and a childlike innocence that makes Johansson’s character difficult to pin down.
Luckily, Johansson is up to the task of making all of these decisions work for her and her character. She’s the one constant of the film, the one person we have even the slightest inkling about, and she sells it beautifully. As the one subject responsible for conveying the suffocating dread that is set up by the technical approaches of Under the Skin, Johansson gives another stellar performance that serves to remind Hollywood that she’s not just a pretty face. It’s been riveting watching Johansson play with audience expectations over the past year, from the conceited Jersey girl of Don John to the disembodied voice of Her to now this, it is clear she knows what the world expects of her and knows how to exploit it for her artistic gain. Even here, as she appears nude on screen for the first time, the choice isn’t some cheap ploy to drum up press or sell tickets. It grows naturally out of the story at hand.
What’s most impressive about Under the Skin is how thoroughly hypnotic it is to experience as a filmgoer. The general lack of dialogue, the wide shots, the sound, Glazer’s reliance on shooting real pedestrians unaware they are being filmed as extras, all of these tactics serve to put the viewer on edge, and Johansson takes that general unsettled feeling and runs with it. It’s a pure psychological horror film that slowly morphs into something more existential and personal as it reaches its climax. The fulcrum of horror shifts so effortlessly and so naturally that it’s possible not to notice at all until the balance of terror has reversed entirely and our protagonist finds herself fleeing what she was once stalking. Everything culminates in a suffocating and tense climax that ends in a truly shocking and unsettling way.
Attempting to explain the pleasure of watching Under the Skin is nigh impossible. It is so perfectly designed and executed, so flawlessly acted by Johansson, so heavy with dread. It is a singular piece of art, the sort of film that does not come along too often and demands attention. It’s a science fiction film that is barely science fiction, a terrestrial and existential horror film that sets up a glass that shows the innermost part of humanity. What is reflected back may not be comfortable to see, but the artistry is so engrossing, the response so instinctual that the film takes hold and never even considers letting go. An achievement like this should be expected of Glazer considering his previous work on screens both big and small, but this is on another level. Under the Skin will be his calling card for a very long time, about as long as it will stay in the memories of those who experience it.