Sometimes, when a motion picture is so extraordinarily transcendent that it single-handedly redefines the auspicious capabilities of the filmic form, the English languageor, really, any languageseems almost too quaint to do its achievements justice. Written and directed by Jonathan Glazer (2004's "Birth
") with an auteur's eye for the hauntingly wondrous and sublime, "Under the Skin" astonishes and provokes from frame one, pitch darkness giving way to a pinhole of illumination that moves ever closer to the camera before finally casting a nakedly exposing light onto the audience. In this moment, much like the big bang itself, a strange and strikingly elusive young woman (Scarlett Johansson) is born anew. The world she steps foot onto is Earth, and more specifically the rocky, untamed Scottish Highlands, but in many respects the surroundings appear to the viewer as mesmerizingly, ominously alien as they are to her. What she does next, and where her ultimate terrifying fate and circumstances lead her, will confound, exhilarate, challenge, and cumulatively devastate. At the risk of classifying a work so thrillingly unclassifiable in its unrivaled vision, "Under the Skin" is an instantaneously quintessential 21st-century masterpiece in science-fiction and horror.
A motorcyclist (Jeremy McWilliams) zooms down a desolate mountain road, stopping along the edge of a ravine to carry the lifeless body of a woman to a van parked on the shoulder. Inside, an unnamed being with a curvaceous physique, full red lips and a black shag of hair disrobes the unfortunate lady and puts on her clothes. She stops long enough to inspect an ant scurrying on the corpse, then is on her way. At once enticing and curious, she drives to Glasgow, shops for a new wardrobe, and begins eavesdropping on the sea of humanity swarming through the streets. She proceeds to methodically search for men to pick up, using a newfound sexuality she is aware of but does not quite understand to lure them back to her cottage, her latest prey in an unfathomable, liquefied spider-web. When she meets a facially deformed man (Adam Pearson) with "beautiful hands," as she calls them, he is the catalyst that leads her to feel something she has never felt before. Her desire to be like the people around her, the ones who can experience normal earthly relationships or think nothing of going into a sleepy diner to gobble up a slice of chocolate cake, is hopeless. She doesn't belong, never will, and before long the baffling evils of the planet will engulf her.
Like its enigmatic antagonist-cum-heroine who loses herself in her own miraculous reflection, "Under the Skin" dares its viewers to look closer and consider their very existence in a different way. Jonathan Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell's liberal adaptation of Michael Faber's 2001 novel, the film delves so vividly into the logistics and psychology of a visiting extraterrestrial that it renders very nearly all previous attempts at such a subject obsolete. A down-to-earth temptressand yes, there is unintended irony within this descriptionshe looks and sounds like everyone else, but is fundamentally cut off from fully connecting to them. The foreign landscape she discovers is a place of objectification, human compassion and innate desire, but also inexplicable encroaching danger. A revolving victim and villainess whose intentionsand those of her mysterious motorcycle-riding helperremain suggestively loaded and fascinatingly cryptic, she proves to be as heartbreakingly vulnerable as she is sumptuously treacherous.
Portraying one of her most revealing characters to date, Scarlett Johansson (2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier
") delivers a performance which very deceptively might appear at first glance to fall on the minimalist's side. She doesn't say a whole lot, and doesn't need to; what is going on behind her eyesthose of an otherworldly being entirely out of her element yet desperate to fit into a place where she cannotis so stunningly layered and evocative it defies comparison. The acting turns hanging around the periphery, most of them playing the male specimen she encounters, are so unaffected they might as well be in a documentaryand, indeed, Glazer cast most of them off the street. It is Johansson, though, who commands the screen and the movie's dramatic focus, a microscopic stranger in a strange world.
In a sensory experience of rugged force and thorn-prick beauty, "Under the Skin" continuously outdoes itself. The location shooting across Scotland, full of stormy wooded vistas and ethereal fog-shrouded tableaus, is breathtakingly captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin (2009's "The Uninvited
"). In another indelible moment, a gusty tunnel of wind and water swirls off the jagged, unsettled shores. Johansson's lair, evoking a corpse's decomposing bowels with the starkness of death itself, houses a seemingly infinite portal of illusory temptation and doom. First-time composer Mica Levi (formerly best known as the lead singer of experimental band Micachu & The Shapes) makes a guttural splash, her brazen, moody, thoroughly unique score a seamless tonal extension to the film's other technical and thematic pleasures. In every pore, there is a feeling of threatening discordance, that what is being seen is impeccably at one with the picture's enveloping aura of universal displacement.
A controlled, unshakable study in abstract lucidity and an example of the far-ranging reaches yet to be pilfered in film, "Under the Skin" stands proudly as the polar opposite of convention. Against the backdrop of her remote environment's untarnished natural majesty, Johansson's veiled feminine creature does all that she can to fulfill her greater mission before losing her way like the meek star of her own ghastly fairy tale. Taken in for a time by a good Samaritan (Michael Moreland) before her final devastating realization that she will never be like him, she sets off down a cold, foreboding hiking trail, the trees above her cascading back and forth as her menacing destiny approaches. When the bitter end of the line comes, the tranquility of the fresh-falling snow will only act as a temporary blanket to the harrowing secretsone from this world, one from anotherlurking underneath. In the picture's final minutes, she does, at last, find common ground in her shattering fallibility. To watch the astounding "Under the Skin" unfold is to lay witness to no less than the next enduring milestone in cinema's ever-evolving legacy.