Review: Primal ‘Under the Skin’ Contains Some of Scarlett Johansson’s Best Work

By April 4, 2014

For better or for worse, Under the Skin may be this year’s Only God Forgives – a seemingly impenetrable but actually very uncomplicated film from a visionary director that some viewers will consider genius and others will call garbage. Now, I’m one of those who thought Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive follow-up was genius, but I’m less sure about Jonathan Glazer’s latest, which reminds fans of his febrile imagination and visual invention, but for a film that took nine years to get to the screen, it seems in surprisingly little hurry to tell its story.

Visually sumptuous but inconsistently intriguing, Glazer’s science-fiction film skillfully boils down genre tropes to their visceral essence, but simultaneously reduces an emotionally resonant narrative to an obtuse series of vignettes.

In the film, Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed alien seductress who lures men to remote locations where motorcycle-riding male accomplices preserve them in black liquid to harvest their organs. Having no previous interaction with the creatures of Earth, she slowly learns about the world through her efforts to charm these men, discovering how to ingratiate herself with them. But after a surprisingly tender encounter with a lonely young man, she unexpectedly finds herself at a crossroads between the demands of her mission and the humanity of her victims.

Adapted from Michel Faber’s novel of the same name by Glazer and Walter Campbell, Under the Skin takes all of the mythology and machinery of science fiction and turns it into something startlingly primal, a series of intimate connections that each climax with an engulfing finality. Opening with the manufacture of an eye – Johansson’s window to the human world – Glazer’s film quietly observes the alchemy of male-female interactions, and then examines the effect of those exchanges on their dispassionate instigator. Her task is not a complicated one, but accomplishing it requires her to employ often complex strategies, and that process unwittingly introduces her to the notion of human vulnerability – and eventually, empathy for her “conquests.”

under the skin

Glazer watches the character’s humanity unfold with the same sort of objective detachment with which she dispatches her victims – he chronicles her behavior without speculating what she’s going through. But much like when watching a predator stalk its prey in a wildlife documentary, the audience subtly becomes involved in her victory or defeat, simultaneously wanting her to prevail and yet agonizing over the fact that when she does, it means another person will die.

In terms of her “consummation apparatus,” meanwhile, Glazer transforms the source material’s holding pens into a terrifyingly vacuous abyss, as Johansson’s character leads each naked man towards the doom of a reflectionless black pool. Her soft flesh is seemingly the environment’s only light source, and there’s an unsubtle but effective metaphor in the imminent danger of the embrace of a mysterious, welcoming woman, even if Glazer doesn’t seem interested, strictly speaking, in vilifying women. But their submergence into blackness has such a powerful, frightening inescapability – a peaceful suffocation where Johansson is the last sight they see – that it requires no more complicated technology to communicate its purpose, or effect.

Notwithstanding her physical nakedness, Johansson possesses an emotional bareness here that paves the way for some of her best work to date – a performance that feels earnest and vulnerable, perhaps not unlike a transcendent beauty being awakened to the unpretty complexities of true humanity. As a cipher who discovers her own unexpected substance, Johansson uses (or lets Glazer use) her curvy allure to create the visage of a maneater, but downplays it beneath a wig and trashy clothes, and then forces her to use genuine charm and sensitivity to seduce her victims.

But in spite of the film’s conceptual complexity, actually getting through it more than occasionally feels like a chore, because these ideas are communicated subtly, if at all, and paced glacially. The transformation from aggressor to victim is undeniably fascinating – as are its underpinnings, which transition the character’s perspective from cool objectivity to feverish identification. But Glazer’s unhurried attitude about following his female protagonist will undoubtedly grow tiresome to some, whether you think its meaning is obvious or completely opaque. Ultimately, Under the Skin is in many ways a magnificent film, but its deliberate self-seriousness, much like the black pools that trap the character’s victims, eventually feels more stifling than stimulating.

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Todd Gilchrist is a film critic with more than ten years of experience working in Los Angeles. A member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd has contributed to a wide variety of print and online outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Variety, The Playlist, MTV Movies, and IGN.