During the screening of Jonathan Glazer’s Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, there were two elderly couples sitting behind my friends and I, and in addition to their continuous commentary I heard some variation of the line: “I still don’t even know what’s going on!” mentioned at least three times.
Though they were obviously the loudest of the dissenters, it’s evident that they comprise a sizable portion of filmgoers who will be turned off by this film’s generous servings of subtlety and ambiguity. But for the patient and creative ones, Under The Skin will prove to be a contemporary cinematic experience like no other.
Loosely based upon the Michel Faber novel of the same name, Under the Skin is director Jonathan Glazer’s first film in nearly a decade following 2004’s polarizing Birth. The film follows an unnamed female protagonist, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson, in her everyday travels through Scotland. She cruises around the country in her conspicuous, bulky white van, scanning the local pedestrians as they criss-cross her path.
Occasionally she’ll stop and talk to one of them, yet she always asks for the same information: first for directions, then if they need a ride, and if so then anything else she can pry out about their personal lives. And she only ever stops for men. By offering random hitchhikers a ride she keeps her actions relatively innocent on the surface (or sexually motivated, as some of the hitchers might read it), but her true intentions are far from that. Once the men are in her grasp she gauges both their physique and their interest in her, and if both readings are satisfactory she lures them back to her multiple hideouts for anything but a romantic fling.
The woman goes about her days, unperturbed by her gruesome actions, until she comes across one particular hitchhiker who makes her feel a new emotion: sympathy. Taking pity in him she lets him escape her grasps, but that doesn’t sit well with her equally mysterious motorcyclist companions who monitor her every move. Fearing retribution she abandons her task and flees to the country, only to find herself completely alone in an unfamiliar world.
If the novel offers a surface scratch of the protagonist’s world, then the film adaptation is an even shallower one. Glazer’s film adaptation alters many aspects from Faber’s novel but keeps the basic premise intact: the stalker-in-a-car motif, the protagonist’s true, sinister purpose, and a minimalist tone (as well as various other nods to the source material through subtle visual cues).
Like the novel, the film leaves much interpretation and understanding up to the viewer: there is very little dialogue (and at times very little sound in general) and each scene unravels with incredible delicacy, resulting in a very slow pace. Yet the film never feels daunting nor tiresome as the steady and beautifully surreal imagery justifies its loitering length. The visuals are complimented by the score from the Micachu and the Shapes frontrunner Mica Levi, which–like the protagonist herself–exudes an unnerving and otherworldly feeling.
Johansson carries the piece with great exuberance. With what she may lack in dialogue she makes up for with her vast screen presence. She comes across as both welcoming and terrifying, erotically wooing the hitchhikers to their entrapment. At times she exerts her character’s confidence and independence in completing her dark task, while she contrasts that with her solitude and utter lack of knowledge about her surrounding world.
Even without much exaggerated facial expressions, Johansson is still capable of evoking anything from horror to compassion as her character slowly wrestles with the acceptance of her own unfortunate situation and the value of human life itself. Considering that such a gamut can be covered in a minimalist piece, that seems to be a feat in and of itself.
It’s a challenge to get through, but Under the Skin is certainly rewarding to those who wait it out. It’s an arthouse sci-fi flick with midnight-movie flair, bolstered by spectacular visuals, a fantastic soundtrack, and a strong performance by Johansson. It’s creepy, it’s entrancing, it’s beautiful, and it’s sure to stay with you for days afterward.