R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.
Running time: 107 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
If you like your movies comforting, safe and tidy — if you treasure things like catharsis and closure and enjoy having your questions answered — then you should probably look elsewhere. “Under the Skin” is not the movie for you.
But if you’re up for a challenge that’s both emotional and intellectual — if you’re prepared to surrender yourself to inspired visuals and a mesmerizing tone, and to be moved deeply by them — then drop whatever you’re doing and go find this film now.
Such a suggestion of urgency may not seem to jibe with the way “Under the Skin” moves. Director and co-writer Jonathan Glazer, a precise and inventive stylist, lures us in with hypnotic images and lusciously deliberate pacing. He’s made a film that’s both beautiful and strange, depending on how you choose to respond to what you’ve seen. But it is an undeniably haunting, singular experience. I can’t tell you for certain what happens here and I don’t mind that one bit; the intentional vagueness is part of what makes the movie so compelling.
I love “Under the Skin” the way I loved “Upstream Color” last year: for being both bold and delicate, for trusting us to fill in the blanks however we might, and for offering an existential puzzle that can never be solved no matter how long we mull it over. The answers aren’t the point. Pondering the questions, reveling in the mysteries — that’s what matters.
And I haven’t even said the words “naked Scarlett Johansson” yet. While she can be a ferociously sexy creature to behold — and a little curvier than usual, an appealing surprise — how she looks isn’t as important as what she does with those looks. She isn’t even human and doesn’t even seem to have a name (although she’s referred to in the film’s production notes as Laura). She is an extraterrestrial being, sent to Earth on an ambiguous but clearly nefarious mission.
Glazer — who co-wrote the script with Walter Campbell, based on the novel by Michael Faber — puts us on edge from the very start with this alien creature’s “arrival,” if you will. Rendered in a dramatically minimalist fashion that’s reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick, the being’s birth takes the form of a tiny, white light that gets larger and larger. Eventually, the light begins to take a human shape — we see an eyeball, we hear a voice practicing letters and words. Composer Mica Levi’s score accompanies this transformation: a frenetic, dissonant jumble of sounds and strings that provides a musicality you can’t quite pinpoint. The sound design is eerie and exquisite throughout.
The young woman assumes the identity of another who looks just like her. She silently takes off her clothes and puts them on herself before venturing into the outside world: specifically, the streets of Glasgow, Scotland. Then she wanders around a nearby mall for a new outfit she thinks will … make her attractive? Help her assimilate? It’s not clear, but the items she selects in her first day on Earth — ass-hugging acid-washed jeans, fur-lined ankle boots and a coral lipstick that’s not quite right for her skin tone — suggest that she’s struggling to figure it out.
Soon, she reveals her modus operandi. With the help of one of her silent, motorcycle-riding minders, she gets behind the wheel of a white minivan and prowls about town. She stops several young men along the way and asks them for directions in a lightly flirty, British accent. In a running bit that’ll amuse American audiences, she can understand all these guys perfectly, even though many of them have accents that are so thick, they should come with subtitles. Then she asks them a few more questions to gauge their availability before offering to give them a lift.
What’s so clever about this segment — aside from the tension that arises from not knowing how each meeting will play out — is that Glazer shot all of this with hidden cameras inside the van. Many of these men aren’t actors, but rather regular guys who just happened to be in the right place at the right time. (And in this setting, they didn’t realize they were talking to one of the most gorgeous and glamorous A-list actresses in the world, hiding behind a mousy, dark-brown wig.)
Soon, they’re back at her lair: a seemingly plain, middle-class abode that disguises an empty black space that’s dreamlike but foreboding. What happens next is open for your interpretation. Each takes off their clothes, a piece at a time. She walks backward, luring them toward her. But as they walk forward, they sink step by step into a liquid abyss, never to emerge again. It’s a fate that’s simply and quietly terrifying.
At first, her encounters with humans don’t register with her; a scene in which she watches a family at a beach is a deeply disturbing example of this. Johansson does so much with just her face and her eyes when her character is alone, surveying her surroundings. She’s almost like an infant in some ways, taking it all in for the first time with fascination. But she’s also dangerous and driven, as evidenced by the skillful way she stalks and manipulates her prey. It’s a chilling performance and one of Johansson’s best, as it requires her to turn on her signature sex appeal while stripping away her persona entirely.
Eventually, though, her character undergoes a subtle change as she accumulates more and more of these encounters. She doesn’t become completely human, but traces of empathy emerge. Similar to the role she played in “Her” as the human-sounding voice of Joaquin Phoenix’s computer operating system, Johansson’s “Under the Skin” character begins to evolve in ways that she never could have anticipated. Glazer is exploring the fleeting nature of existence itself, and the lingering sensation he creates of loneliness and confusion is unshakable.
This is only the third feature from the former music video director. His first, 2000’s “Sexy Best,” was a stylish and suspenseful crime thriller featuring an unexpected, tour-de-force performance from Ben Kingsley as a brutal British gangster. His follow-up, 2004’s “Birth,” was a mournful mystery about love lost and found, with a daring, moving performance from Nicole Kidman. Here, Glazer gets totally different work out of Johansson than we’ve ever seen before.
I wish so many years didn’t pass between his movies, but they’re certainly worth the wait. “Under the Skin” stays with long after it’s over — and it’s definitely one of the year’s best.