Jonathan Glazer’s very welcome return to movie-making seems to have all the schlocky hallmarks of a sci-fi b-movie - beautiful, seductive female alien comes to earth and lures men to their death – but with Under The Skin he has elevated that pulp scenario into a very real, very graphic, and very unsettling art house horror flick with an astonishing central performance by Scarlett Johansson.
There are echoes of Nicholas Roeg in the still, slowly unfolding story and it casts a lurid spell similar to the mounting terror and unease of Kubrick but Glazer, director of nasty gangster romp Sexy Beast and the unfairly dismissed Birth, is very much his own man. He has taken an unorthodox approach here, using hidden cameras, no sets, and “civilians” as actors. The action and the sparse dialogue happen rather than take place.
Essentially, Johansson, in black wig, trashy leopard skin jacket and stone-washed jeans, drives around the rain-slicked and neon-blurred streets of Glasgow in a white transit van. She picks up willing men, and then seduces and kills them in a series of lurid, hallucinatory scenes that owe something to Glazer’s early career as a promo director for Brit rock’s awkward squad of Massive Attack and Radiohead.
We are never told why this mostly mute succubus carries out these ritualistic murders. Glazer’s aim is to let us see through the eyes of a stranger in a strange land and, perhaps, how our daily grind can even appear exotic to an outsider. Under The Skin may share some similarities with Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, but nothing is ever made too explicit.
Click on the video link above to watch an interview with Jonathan Glazer
However, Johansson’s alien is not without a kind of stunted moral code and when her mission to kill turns into an affectionate curiosity for this strange new world, the movie shifts abruptly from dark city streets to the desolate beauty of the Scottish highlands, where she becomes the hunted and not the hunter.
Glazer's film is full of striking images, ghostly and stark, and with a totally-absorbing sense of altered reality. The everyday is made seem alien. The whole nightmare is slashed open by Mica Levi‘s vertiginous soundtrack of shrill strings, orchestral tics and babbling voices.
After her role as a disembodied computer in Her, Johansson is very present and, indeed, very naked here and she delivers a performance that may look undemanding but her talent for flicking from coquettish seductress to cold-eyed killer is riveting.
Under The Skin is no joyride around the rings of Saturn and it has already proved divisive: when it was debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year, it was greeted by both booing and cheering. It’s an unearthly, earthbound trip that slips in and out of the realms of the surreal. It is also a strangely beautiful piece of work.