Review by: Bill Graham
There are moments of pure awe during Under the Skin that left me with the impression that what Jonathan Glazer had achieved was more than I would be able to take in on a single viewing. Again and again, whether through visuals or the sonic bombardment of tones, music, and voices, there is a relentless forward momentum to this spare film. Running a mere 108 minutes, there is a hyper-sexual tilt to this alien-invader flick that I feel is perfect in scope. There are no doomsday scenarios at play. There doesn’t even seem to be much of a scheme. Yet we begin to infer these things with no narration and sparse dialogue beyond the interactions between hunter and prey. That Glazer uses Scarlett Johansson, looking as ordinary and plain as she possibly can, is the stroke that is his biggest draw that will likely expose viewers to something they weren’t quite expecting.
Let’s be clear about one thing up front. For many, Johansson as an alien seductress that preys on lonely men late at night is enough to admirers of the female form. That she pulls off the innocence that lures them in as well as the detached way she continues on in her quest is why the film doesn’t falter as it might under someone similarly alluring but less talented. There’s intelligence at play. You can see her evolve as she cruises the streets. She gets better at it, but there are signs that these creatures aren’t as hyper intelligent as you might expect. The house she uses is about as decrepit as can be, and during one moment of levity a potential victim does a double take at the home in broad daylight—most of the victims enter the house during nighttime—before entering the threshold. Alas, Johansson’s charms, many of them on full display during a few sequences, are just too much for the sorry saps in Scotland.
While the lack of answers and a clear narrative can be alarming at first, you will likely settle into a groove. But as we quickly learn, that can turn into a rut. Our familiarity with the sequence of events, with Johansson cruising the towns looking for men alone—never meeting anyone or surrounded by other people—can become grating. Just when you think the film won’t do anything different, we switch gears. Johansson takes heart and begins to feel differently. From here on, the film’s pulse quickens. She leaves the protection of her “handler”, a crotch-rocket riding man, complete with the leather suit you might see on a professional rider, who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the film by choice instead of by inability, and sets of for something more.
Yet Glazer seems more in tune with the first part of the narrative. I still can’t shake the first time I saw what happened to a victim of Johansson, which puts into perspective the title of this film. Additionally, the cold opening with around 10 minutes of footage without a single spoken word is arresting. We are ushered around by the sounds of the world around Johansson, but also prodded by the pounding, alien score. I can’t recall if a theremin was ever used, yet it’s the same haunting quality that the score takes on during the film that leaves you with chills. Repeating motifs and sounds pepper the film. Additionally, Glazer seems fascinated with layering images. At one point we see the myriad of people that Johansson encounters on the streets turn to a shimmering golden haze. As the camera starts to split into multiple screens of each person, we can find that Johansson’s face appears behind it. It’s a ghastly and haunting moment during the film and Glazer taps similar ground a few more times just to make sure the imagery sticks with you.
All of this is to say that if you’re looking for things to be handed to you, you will be disappointed. But if you’re up for a film that is as spare as it is challenging, you’re in for a heck of a ride. Thrilling to behold, this is a beautiful film in every sense that rarely pleases just to please. We build from nothing our narrative. And Glazer and his cohorts never seem concerned with whether you’re keeping up or not. That can be infuriating or instead give you a sense of untethered rawness and freedom. You can fill in the details and missing gaps. With a powerful sense of visuals and a keen awareness of how to invade our ears, Glazer has delivered an unnerving film that announces him as someone brave enough to keep treading down a path that you may not soon shake. Indeed, Under the Skin does just that, and that’s all I could ever want.