Although Under the Skin is based on Michael Faber’s book of the same name, it is fair to say that this film belongs entirely to its director and its star. So pared back is the story that it has become a piece almost entirely about themes and mood, even the director Jonathan Glazer’s decision to reveal the lead character’s alien origin seems an intentional attempt to remove easy suspense, and therefore make the film work harder to keep the audiences’ attention.
The film plays out in two basic halves. To begin with we follow Scarlett Johansson’s beautiful but almost completely detached alien, Laura, coldly travelling the streets of Glasgow in a white van. She lures unsuspecting young men back to her lair in a semi derelict house with the merest suggestion of sex, only for them to be consumed by an unexplained black liquid,while they are transfixed by their alien captor’s allure.
the viewer can be left in no doubt that it is Johnsson’s performance that provides its flickering heart.
As the body count rises, Laura begins to be touched by the humanity of her victims and becomes troubled by their plight. This sense of her own burgeoning humanity drives her to rescue her latest victim from his doom. Realising that she will now become the hunted rather than the hunter, she is forced on the run from her alien overseers. The films second act sees her fleeing urban Glasgow for the wilds of rural Scotland as she tries to discover herself and her soul, whilst not being discovered by her pursuers.
Although the plot is simplistic, the visual spectacle of this film is anything but. Glazer has managed, through the use of hidden cameras, first time actors and harsh settings, alongside beautiful visual effects, to create a film which seamlessly combines social realism with astonishing otherworldliness. The use of sound is just as important, constantly used to de-familiarise even the most mundane setting. The soundscape, created by Mica Levi and Johnnie Burn takes on a very Lynchian air, harking back to the finest of that director’s work with composer Angelo Badalamenti.
The extraordinary design and directorial flair of Under the Skin will no doubt see it described as very much Glazer’s film, but the viewer can be left in no doubt that it is Johansson’s performance which provides its flickering heart. The mesmerizing yet restrained portrayal of a lost soul, alone and increasingly desperate on the very fringe of humanity is, in spite of its contrived set up and minimal spoken script, powerfully affecting and utterly convincing.