Among the first discernible sounds in Under the Skin—director Jonathan Glazer’s instant masterpiece of meditation-on-the-human-experience body horror—is Scarlett Johansson’s voice practicing sounds. It runs through individual letters of the alphabet, as though for the first time, and then individual words, all while the screen is consumed by the construction of what appears to be a human eye. The pairing of those sounds with that image captures everything that’s so gob-smacking about this movie: It virtually demands learning an entirely new language of movie storytelling.
Moviegoers often dread risky filmmaking—sometimes because they fear that someone’s daring them to “get it,” sometimes because they feel their time and money have been wasted if they don’t “get it.” And Under the Skin is a daring approach to what easily could have been a simple genre tale spiced with a little sex and violence. But Glazer takes from the raw material of Michael Faber’s source-material novel an idea about what it’s like to be experiencing the world through eyes and ears that have never seen or heard it before—and carrying viewers into sharing that experience makes it as unsettling as it is mind-blowing.
It shouldn’t be considered a spoiler to note that Johansson’s never-named character in Under the Skin is not of this world. And she’s built to be a hunter, of a very particular kind: Prowling the streets of Glasgow and surrounding Scottish towns, she uses human libido as the bait, luring men intoxicated with the promise of sex with this beautiful, willing “woman” to their doom in a room that feels like a universe of blackness.
Glazer (Birth) and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell refuse to spell out most of the details of this particular close encounter. It’s clear that “The Girl” has assistance in her mission from a group of motorcycle-riding “cleaners,” and that whatever the men she catches are meant for, there’s no coming back from it. If you’re a viewer for whom “what’s going on” is an essential piece of your movie-going experience, Under the Skin demands your full attention (and only partly because the dense Scottish accents can be a challenge for the uninitiated).
Then again, it’s hard to imagine why anyone’s attention might wane from Glazer’s startling images. Some of the moments he captures are impossible to shake: a human body reduced to a flapping, floating husk; a tear falling from the eye of a body that has outlived its usefulness; one of The Girl’s targets, a man with severe facial deformities, pinching his own hand, unable to believe that a beautiful woman is taking interest in him; a baby abandoned and crying on a rocky beach. Combined with the unsettling music score by Mica Levi and haunting sound design by Johnnie Burn, Under the Skin becomes the kind of complete sensory experience movies almost never strive to be.
If that sensory experience is often disorienting, that’s only because it should be. Johansson’s terrific, almost entirely physical performance pulls us into the perspective of someone who initially is merely a mimic of humanity; it’s chilling watching her flip the switch from flirtatious banter to a dead-eyed stare when her efforts at seducing a man are unsuccessful. Yet as The Girl absorbs more human experience—walking through a mall, or looking with curiosity at her own human face and body, or even attempting to eat human food—she begins to change. And part of becoming more connected to human experience means finding herself at times lost and at risk.
Many early descriptions of Under the Skin compared Glazer’s work to that of Stanley Kubrick, and it’s easy to see how some of the hypnotic imagery and stark compositions during the opening scenes could inspire that connection. Yet Glazer also employs a chaos-embracing methodology Kubrick never would have considered, hiding cameras in a car and along streets to observe Johansson’s interactions with unwitting civilian passersby.
That formula—a combination of precision planning and the unpredictability of real people—is part of what makes Under the Skin such a remarkable piece of work. It’s unconventional enough that it might at first feel completely alien; it’s only once you surrender to everything you see and hear that it grabs on to you somewhere vital and human.
UNDER THE SKIN