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Movie review: 'Under the Skin'

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Black Widow. That was the first way I thought to describe Scarlett Johansson’s enigmatic character while I watched her fearless performance in “Under the Skin.” It’s merely coincidental that her character goes by that very name in the Marvel comic book movies. In director Jonathan Glazer’s latest film, the comparison to the venomous, man-eating spider feels even more fitting.

Equipped with a white van, faux-fur jacket, and jet-black hair, Laura (Johansson) drives around Glasgow, Scotland, looking for young men walking the streets alone. She strikes up a conversation with them – either by asking for directions or if they need a lift – and then proceeds to lure them back to her home, which is shrouded in darkness with mirrored black floors. She slowly, sensually leads the way, undressing as she goes; they always follow and do the same. What happens next is where things get bizarre: as they follow her, the floor gives way into an inky black abyss that sucks them into its depths, never to be seen again.

We learn that she is the ultimate wolf in sheep’s clothing -- an alien wandering about in human form looking for male prey. The first half of the movie is mostly made up of variations of the scene I just described. It turns out that most of the men she’s seen picking up aren’t actors, but regular guys found on the streets of Glasgow. Hidden cameras in the van captured the interactions, with the men clueless to the fact that they were getting a ride with one of America’s hottest actresses.

There are certain things most of us have come to expect while watching a film -- certain things that we deem a necessary part of a movie’s DNA. First and foremost: exposition. “Under the Skin” doesn’t give you much of anything you have come to expect. There’s no explanation, no backstory, and we rarely know what’s going on in Laura’s head. Here, Glazer prioritizes images over words to the fullest extent.

What “Under the Skin” does communicate in spades, however, is tone. There is something incredibly haunting about this film that makes it linger in the memory long after the credits roll. Even when it's at its most elusive, the music (an eerie, indelible score by Mica Levi – potentially one of the best of the year), and mesmerizing, poetic visuals compensate for what your mind is still trying to grasp.

In fact, this is the sort of film where most will leave the theater sharing one universal question: “What did I just watch?” Most moviegoers crave understanding – they want the deeper meaning to be fed to them directly. And that’s exactly why “Under the Skin” will likely only appeal to a small fraction of the movie-going community. Those who go to see a naked Scarlett Johansson will probably last 20 minutes in the theater, tops. Those who welcome a slower, contemplative work of psychological sci-fi may find themselves rewarded for their patience.

Because even though dialogue is scarce, “Under the Skin” is a film rich in ideas – one such idea being the inherent difference between a predator of necessity versus a predator of lust. There’s something about Laura that’s terrifyingly calculating, but at the same time almost strangely pragmatic; this is the way she sustains the life of herself and those of her kind, no different than a lion stalking the gazelle in the wild.

We watch in horror because our own race is the one in danger. But how is she worse than the predators among our own species? There’s a straightforward quality to her actions that makes her a fascinating mystery to behold. Johansson gives a provocative and detached performance that is key in helping any sort of understanding for her character come about.

This is a story about predators and prey; a look into those roles, and into what happens when they’re reversed. In movies, it’s stereotypically a male figure that takes on the role of predator, with women fulfilling the role of the most vulnerable of prey. Fear of safety isn’t ingrained into the male mind the way it is in females. So it’s particularly interesting to watch these real-life scenes of men taking Johansson up on her offer and getting into the van. They don’t seem to think twice about the potential danger of the situation.

Likewise, such a concern is foreign to Laura, a creature who is used to being a huntress, rather than the hunted. They do, however, share one common link: what happens when they let their guard down can be equally devastating.

Rating: A-

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