Written by Walter Campbell and Jonathan Glazer
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
UK and USA, 2013
A profound sense of unease permeates and accompanies Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s first film in nearly 10 years. Glazer’s debut feature, the excellent British gangster picture Sexy Beast, married vicious and profane dialogue with a penchant for nightmarish imagery; his follow-up, the austere and stately Birth, was a quieter piece that relied heavily on the porcelain-doll qualities of his leading lady, Nicole Kidman. Each of his three films, Under the Skin included, have a knack for presenting the ostensibly normal as something indescribably frightening, whether it’s the sunbaked backyard of an ex-thief or a middle-aged man’s daily jog through Central Prak or the simple act of driving a van through a rainy city. More than his previous features, though, Glazer leaves behind the vagaries of plot and exposition-as-dialogue in Under the Skin, a most elusive, disturbing, and hard-to-shake picture.
At the center of Under the Skin is Scarlett Johansson, portraying an unnamed woman who prowls the streets of Scotland, hunting for men who are on their own. She seduces them—even though Johansson dons a short black wig here, it’s arguably not a difficult task—and lures them back to her solitary house where…well, to say any more is to ruin the frightening and stark imagery. But suffice to say, she doesn’t have their best interests in mind. Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell, working from a novel by Michel Faber (though they have apparently steered far away from making a faithful adaptation), eschew most standards of three-act filmmaking and instead rely (successfully) primarily on two elements: Johansson’s inscrutable visage and a sense of unavoidable terror.
In some respects, possibly unintentionally, Under the Skin functions as a meta-commentary on Scarlett Johansson’s current career, or in a more general sense, the place of femininity in our celebrity culture. In recent months, Johansson has been the focus of a controversial profile in The New Yorker by Anthony Lane; her comments weren’t what inspired people to hotly debate the profile as much as Lane’s verbal drooling over her beauty. (Mr. Lane, no doubt, wouldn’t put up much of a fight had he been one of the random non-actors who Johansson’s character in Under the Skin picks up.) And considering her exemplary work in Spike Jonze’s her as well as her fairly one-dimensional character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s hard not to see this film as her trying to claim a bit more agency in the way she’s perceived by men, if not by everyone. Her character—who undergoes something of an identity crisis throughout Under the Skin—is unnamed and identified solely by her physical beauty, which is enough for these strangers to disrobe in her strange domicile. Though Johansson does speak in the film—far less in the second half—she’s often engaging in meaningless small talk, communicating more with her dark eyes and flirtatious smile. She’s a hollow shell in search of meaning.
As Under the Skin progresses, Johansson’s character displays even less control than was initially the case. (Even when she’s seducing these hapless young men to their doom, she’s doing so under the watchful eye of a male motorcyclist, who may be her keeper or something more nefarious.) As she begins to question her place in the universe, she loses whatever meager power her body afforded her. All of this is communicated, appropriately, physically; by the film’s end, Johansson is speaking in a barely audible whisper instead of her originally vivacious tones. As such, Under the Skin lives or dies on Scarlett Johansson’s performance, which is one of her finest, on the heels of her excellent vocal work in her; her detached impassivity transforms subtly into disaffected alienation by the final, haunting moments, beginning to approach a state of relatable humanity. No one else in the film—the few other women are mostly seen and not heard, or seen and not heard clearly—makes as great an impact as Johansson; at certain points, Glazer superimposes her face so that it nearly hovers over the denizens of Scotland, observant and unemotional. Johansson continues to improve as an actress, and with Under the Skin, she’s taken an immense and daring leap into the unknown.
Technically, Under the Skin is as perfectly composed as Sexy Beast or Birth; unlike with those films, Glazer and his cinematographer Daniel Landin have shot this in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, compressing the action in such a way to heighten a tense claustrophobia. Even with a tighter aspect ratio, Glazer and Landin have found ways to visually communicate the foggy and foreboding qualities of Scotland; early in the film, one of the male conquests explained that he moved to this country because “it’s nowhere.” This becomes a fitting comparison; when Johansson has gotten her metaphorical hooks in these men and leads them to a chilling death, it is in a state of dark blankness. She leads them, almost literally, nowhere, to an absence of tactile and physical locations. It is this absence that allows Under the Skin to present Scotland as some kind of nightmarish and alien world, an impenetrable and destructive force uncontrolled and untamed by humans. Glazer doesn’t lack for more specifically horrifying imagery; to describe it in great detail would ruin the moment’s surprise, but when it’s revealed, somewhat obliquely, exactly what happens to these men once Johansson’s done with them is extraordinarily scary. The ominous and intentionally repetitive score by Mica Levi also contributes to an unerring sense of fear; its throbbing notes and screaming violins are as inescapable as Johansson’s indescribably foreign presence.
The ambiguity of Under the Skin, present from the opening scene (which calls to mind the Star Gate sequence at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey), is impossible to shake; the film is a mystery that cannot possibly be solved yet offers multiple interpretations that each have a wisp of truth if not more. Jonathan Glazer has, for one reason or another, taken a near-decade-long break from feature filmmaking but makes a resounding, striking, and beautiful return with Under the Skin. Here is a film that could be seen as a statement on the intractable nature of femininity in the modern world; whatever agency, the film appears to argue, women have is afforded to them by men, who will take it away if they’re threatened. In the closing moments, Scarlett Johansson returns to the natural world, her physical presence so alien to the men in this film that she can only acquire an identity by leaving it behind. It is one of her finest performances to date, just as Under the Skin is the year’s best film to date.
— Josh Spiegel