Under the Skin

ET landed in the cosy American suburbs and wanted to go home. Now Scarlett Johansson – or something that looks like her – lands in modern Glasgow and thinks about sticking around in Jonathan Glazer’s creepy, mysterious and bold ‘Under the Skin’. One can only guess that the weather is beyond dire on her side of the galaxy. The film is an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel and the first in nearly a decade from the director of ‘Sexy Beast’ and ‘Birth’. It’s an intoxicating marvel, strange and sublime: it combines sci-fi ideas, gloriously unusual special effects and a sharp atmosphere of horror with the everyday mundanity of a woman driving about rainy Scotland in a battered transit van.

Dressed in fake fur and what looks like a dark wig, our female visitor eyes up the locals from a distance, her eyes kindly but free of emotion. Is she curious? Hungry? Horny? It feels like a serial-killer tale as she lures men into her van from the side of the street or from the dancefloor of a nightclub, always checking they’re alone. But occasionally we enter another world entirely as Glazer represents the final moments of her victims in scenes that show naked men walking into oil slicks and losing their lives. But then something changes as she reacts with compassion to a disfigured man and responds well to the kindness of another. There’s a suggestion that this Achilles heel is her undoing. All of this is delivered at a leisurely – some will say frustrating – pace. The look of the film moves between the chilly, gliding precison that Glazer perfected in ‘Birth’ to a more rough-hewn, surveillance-style effect.

Johansson’s performance is necessarily quiet, her look subtly out of this world. She utters her few lines in a refined English accent, while presumably most of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Mico Levi’s score ups the dread level: it sounds at times like a new electronic language being born or a subtle form of communication between aliens. It’s a serious, often bleak film – a scene of a family faced with drowning is the film’s most horrific moment – but a wry humour stops it taking itself too seriously. It’s a story of a predator becoming prey, and it asks us to look at our world again with something like the fresh eyes of the martian poetry of Craig Raine, although that element of the film isn’t too laboured. Perhaps more interestingly, it offers some provocative sideways views on seduction, sexual power and its abuse. Daring and thoughtful.

Release details

Release date: Wednesday June 25 2014
Duration: 108 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriter: Jonathan Glazer
Cast: Scarlett Johansson
Paul Brannigan
Robert Chartoff
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