Arthouse curios are truly one of the great gifts that cinema continually offers to fans of indie filmmaking. There isn't a lot of room for experimentation in blockbusters or mid-budget dramas, but with a film like Under the Skin, anything goes. Jonathan Glazer has turned in two off-beat pictures in Sexy Beast and Birth, but this, this is an even rarer find. With the exception of casting star Scarlett Johansson, everything about Under the Skin is a barebones production, from the use of non-actors to utilizing hidden cameras to capture scenes.
An alien seductress (Scarlett Johansson) preys upon hitchhikers in Scotland. The game is easy enough for the unnamed lead, she shows the slightest flirtation and the local men quite willing jump into her large van. If at first the dialogue of the locals in Glasgow seems imperceptible, don't fret over your hearing. Glazer equipped the van with hidden cameras and mikes so that the men talking with Johansson are actually ordinary guys right off the street. Once in the van she determines if the man in her passenger seat is socially isolated enough to proceed to the next stage of the evening. Fans of Nirvana might qualify it as a "tar-pit trap," but in the interest of keeping the surprises for the theatre no more details will be revealed.
With each new victim, Glazer reveals a little more of the process while still holding the audience at arm's length. There is a deliberate refusal to reveal too much of what happens to her victims, or the motivations as to why she does anything she does. The lack of answers may prove frustrating at times due to the slow pacing, but the slow dread that builds throughout the film proves much more satisfying for it.
What helps Under the Skin transcend "mere curio"and into a very effective piece of cerebral horror is the nearly perfect technical composition of the sound and look of the film. Jonathan Glazer manages to take a world we are quite immersed in and familiar with and turn it into a dark and dangerous place. Malls and nightclub raves take on a surreal light where the promise of violence flickers in the strobe lights and rhythmic dance movements surrounding the visitor. There is a lot of deeply upsetting imagery that stays with viewers heading out of the theatre, aided by the alien score by Mica Levi. Levi's score sets the audience on edge throughout the runtime by stretching notes beyond the recognizable. With the exception of Johansson and Glazer, she has perhaps the greatest affect on the film.
No slouch herself, Scarlett Johansson succeeds in the unenviable task of portraying a woman completely new to the experiences Earth offers. Johansson utilizes little facial expression in her portrayal of a cold, unfeeling visitor to this planet mostly registering as blank for most of the runtime. However once she turns her back on her trade the curiosity that she repressed before prove too strong to ignore. Laughs and fear flash across her face as much a surprise to her as it is to the audience. It would be too simplistic to say that Johansson's alien falls prey to human nature. She tries to replicate what she has seen in those around her, but even the simple act of eating cake proves impossible. Many of the impenetrable aspects of living as a human escape her. Yet, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the performance is that she and Glazer are deconstructing how she is objectified in other films to effect here. It's a very pointed effort at audience members who only came in for the sexual aspects of the film.
There may never be another Stanley Kubrick, but Glazer is placing himself on the short-list by creating art that demands to not only be seen, but parsed through and examined. Under the Skin may not be the best film of a still-developing 2014, but it has certainly proven itself to be the most discussed, if not the most interesting. Don't be left out of the conversation, see it.