A skin-crawling look at society in ‘Under the Skin’

Haley Williams/Staff

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It’s pretty telling that the title card to “Under the Skin” includes only Scarlett Johansson’s name and none of the other actors in the film. The movie is ultimately Johansson’s, and the burden of executing Jonathan Glazer’s cryptic script — which features almost no dialogue and never names any of the characters — rests solely on her shoulders.

The film demands a hypnotic but nuanced performance from its lead to work, and Johansson delivers it with confidence.

At the most basic level, “Under the Skin” is about an alien that poses as a human and seduces unsuspecting men. Those men are then abducted and suspended in animation via some kind of grotesque preserving liquid. It’s not clear exactly what happens to these victims, but for the purposes of the film, the men cease to exist, never to appear on screen again.

But on a deeper level, the film — at least the first half of it — turns the modern narrative around sexual assault on its head. Imagine, for example, a scenario in which a man drives around in an unmarked white van at night and asks women on the street for directions. He then asks those women where they are from and where they going, offering to give them a lift along the way. The scene is immediately one of suspicion. This is exactly the scenario in “Under the Skin,” except the roles are reversed — Johansson drives the van, and the men are the victims. In Scotland, where the film is set, Glazer creates a world where it is men who must be wary of strangers at night.

The film strays from this narrative as Johansson’s unnamed character undergoes an identity crisis, mimicking what she sees around her. But she cannot solve her psychological distress. She can place food in her mouth, but she can’t swallow. She can fall, but she doesn’t know how to pick herself up. She can entice men into sex, but she can’t actually make love with them. Johansson and Glazer uncover what it means to be human through the lens of a character who isn’t.

It is Johansson’s control over this dichotomy that allows the film to function. She can be charming while simultaneously terrorizing, all while mesmerizing the viewer. This isn’t the ScarJo you’ll find in the recently released “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” In “Under the Skin,” Johansson wields her sexual allure with such sophisticated discipline that it is easy to imagine her deception working in real life. And in fact, it does — many of the men Johansson lures are not actors at all, but are unsuspecting residents of Glasgow captured on hidden cameras. This method gives the film a raw, almost amateur look that complements the dreary Scottish environment perfectly. Combined with an appropriately eerie soundtrack, this creates a haunting atmosphere that keeps the movie, which can feel slow at times, from dragging too heavily.

The film reaches its zenith when Johansson, still picking up guys in her van, runs into a deformed man late at night. Where most people would immediately see the man’s abnormality, the female seductress does not pick up on it at first and treats him like anyone else she is trying to bait, asking him hilariously inappropriate questions such as, “Do you have a girlfriend?” The scene is a reflective moment that questions the implicit rules of our society.

“Under the Skin” will no doubt divide viewers. Some will find themselves enthralled with the existential journey that the film forces them to take. Others will be bored with the deliberately slow pace. But no matter what, this is a film that, like or dislike, should stick with the viewer long after the credits roll. In that sense, Glazer certainly succeeds in provoking thought, inspiring discussion and — ultimately — creating a film that buries itself under the skin of the viewer.

Contact Riley McAtee at [email protected].