Movie Review: ‘Under the Skin’ deserves a second look

An unassuming white van wanders aimlessly through the streets of Scotland. In the driver seat an incredibly gorgeous woman sits; she can’t find her way. This woman, who refers to herself as “Laura” (Scarlett Johansson), gazes back and forth through the crowds of people – all of whom notably seem to be men – and inconspicuously asks for directions. Charming and friendly, she offers them a ride. How could they resist?

Jonathan Glazer (“Birth,” “Sexy Beast”) hasn’t been behind the camera in quite some time, and his first film in nine years, “Under The Skin” is mysterious and haunting. Even with such deliberate pacing, it never comes across as slow, and his “show, don’t tell” method of storytelling only contributes to its intrigue.

“Under The Skin” is a sci-fi film, but apart from a couple of scenes – specifically its clearly Kubrick-inspired opening sequence (which involves her going to Earth, and her creation, I think), reminiscent of a scene straight out of “2001: A Space Odyssey” – you might not be able to tell.

The film is a mood piece, effectively utilizing its eerie score and sound design to further suck the viewer into its dark world. Glazer doesn’t need dialogue, and the film contains very little of it (It’s amazing that this was actually based on a book), which is spoken through thick Scottish dialect. Good luck understanding it.

Not that it matters; for the first half, the conversations are routine. Laura preys on men, luring them into her van. It does not take much to plant the prospect of sexual intercourse into their heads. It actually doesn’t take anything. Maybe that’s the point, and you don’t want to be one of these men.

The men we see all are non-actors. Glazer actually put hidden cameras in the van, and had Johansson driving around Glasgow asking strangers for directions. This adds a sense of realism to the film, making everything seem a little bit more grounded.

Who she is or what she really wants, escapes us. All you really know is that she isn’t from this world and she’s not alone. Her true motivation is unclear, but when she picks up a deformed man on his way to the grocery store something inside her triggers, and Johansson plays it perfectly. Her performance is restrained and iconic. She masterfully turns a predator, into someone who feels empathy. She starts to wonder what it’s like to feel human.

What it all means remains to be said. “Under The Skin” is a puzzling and difficult film, and it’s not for everyone. No answers are laid out for you, with definite ideas of sexism and humanity. You’ll have enough to think about for days.

It would be easy for anyone to dismiss Jonathan Glazer’s “Under The Skin” as pointless and repetitive – something many did when it premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival last September where it was met with boos from the audience, but let the film’s wonderfully strange score by Mica Levi seep into your brain and wash over you and you will be rewarded with one truly hypnotic viewing experience, and something truly unique.

One of the best films of the year thus far.

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.