As the director of Sexy Beast and Birth, Jonathan Glazer is responsible for some of the most illuminating, stimulating images in recent memory. It's just a shame he waits so long between movies, this time going nearly a decade before unleashing the intoxicating and deeply unsettling Under the Skin, a contemplative and deeply unsettling sci-fi film that continues his string of gorgeously-crafted, barely comprehensible mood pieces. The challenge of not-knowing; Glazer's unwillingness to spell out everything about this strange and mesmerizing film; is part of what makes it so compelling and at times infuriating.
The debate over Scarlett Johansson as an actress should be over by now, she's proven to be more than just some hot chick. And yet there's also no denying he exotic allure. It's not something she's always been comfortable with on the silver screen, and early on in her career she seemed totally unaware of it. Maybe it's slipping into skintight spandex for superhero movies but now her sexuality is a potent thing, and Under the Skin has her wielding it like a deadly weapon.
There aren't a lot of guys who would turn down an offer of...well, pretty much anything from Johansson, even if the offer seems too good to be true. She plays an alien of unknown origin, arrived to Earth in a manic flash of brilliant light and piercing sounds, coalescing into form without us quite knowing exactly how it happened. When our eyes adjust from the madness, it's Johansson's physical form we see, the model of pure perfection. An irrefutable, undeniable cipher, she dons the sexy clothing of a dead girl and makes her way into the streets of Scotland to experience the world. A cold and clinical twist on the innocence and hunger for life Johansson exhibited in Spike Jonze's Her, the alien starts off slow with easy conversations she doesn't quite understand. Nor does she quite have a grasp on human emotions. One man she encounters she beats with a rock after he attempts to save a drowning a woman; all the while ignoring the crying and stranded baby nearby.
But soon she begins to pick up on little things, using her seductive powers to lure lucky (or extremely unlucky) men into her van. They can't resist her flirty charms and faux helplessness, thinking they've just stumbled into the easiest lay of their lives. Many of these scenes were filmed in secret by Glazer, using non-actors who apparently had no idea they were macking on Johansson, and so these conversations have an authentic, natural rhythm. These guys really think they're getting somewhere, and in a way, they are. Unfortunately it's to the alien's lair, a dark abyss where she slowly disrobes while leading her prey deeper into the room. As they go further, they slowly sink into a murky depth, a nightmarish, soul-destroying end too terrible to imagine. The image of what actually happens to these men under that watery veil is so awful it's been seared into my memory.
As for what any of this means, those answers aren't exactly forthcoming, and Glazer leaves us plenty of room to draw conclusions. Sometimes that narrative indifference becomes a pain to deal with, and when combined with the deliberate pace it nearly drives the film into the realm of art house chore. There's very little dialogue, and half of it in Scottish brogue so thick only an extraterrestrial could understand it. Johansson’s depictions of the creature’s evolving curiosity and emerging lust for life consistently drag the film back from the brink. It's a difficult role, one that demands childlike innocence with deadly sexuality, and there aren't many actresses more uniquely suited to pull it off than her.
The conclusion is an unsatisfying burst of fear and violence, leaving too many stones unturned, too much left to be said. But it's also kind of appropriate. Glazer's Under the Skin gets under our skin, leaving us bewildered yet wanting more.