Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” moves like molasses and is astonishingly stingy when it comes to explaining itself, yet there’s something compelling about this challenging, maddening experience you can’t quite shake.
One big thing it has going for it is Scarlett Johansson, weirdly fascinating as a young woman who drives around Glasgow, Scotland, trying to initiate conversations with young men. It’s not that the actress has to show a lot of range here, but she is Lady Scarlett, one of the most watchable movie stars we’ve got.
Johansson’s character hasn’t a name. She seems utterly without emotion, although when confronted with a specimen of thick Scottish manhood she seems to know just what buttons to push — quiet and circumspect with some fellas, more aggressive with others.
When one of these young oafs gets into her vehicle with a bit of action on his mind, she drives him to an abandoned building where both disrobe and she leads him into a pool of black, viscous stuff that sucks him up.
Clearly, our girl is not of this world. Is she killing these lunks? Storing them for a food supply?
Expect no answers.
She drives around in a white panel van (apparently the vehicle of choice of serial killers throughout the galaxy) and frequently interacts with a silent man in cycle leathers who rides a bike and abets our heroine, though what exactly he’s doing is never explained.
At one point we see that he is part of a group of motorcycle riders — they remind of the bike-riding harbingers of death in Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus.”
Indeed, throughout the film writer Walter Campbell and director Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) channel the effects and images of filmmakers they admire, from the long, near-static shots and unhurried editing that screams Stanley Kubrick to the overall setup, which seems to have been plucked from Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”
It’s difficult to discern exactly what Glazer has on his mind, but a big cue is the woman’s slow-growing appreciation of the humans around her.
Granted, her prey are largely ecstasy-zonked ravers who wander the nighttime streets in braying packs. Good riddance. But some of her encounters — like her witnessing the death of a husband/father who tries to save his drowning wife in churning surf, or a run-in with a deformed man who cannot quite believe this gorgeous girl is giving him the time of day — clearly pique the curiosity of this enigmatic individual.
Late in the film she even allows a friendly fellow — a quite decent chap, actually — to take her back to his place. An attempt is made at sex, but apparently she’s not wired for that activity.
“Under the Skin” allows our visitor to experience both the best and worst of human behavior.
Whether you find the film profound or pretentious is very much a matter of personal taste.
Johansson is, it is widely agreed, one of the most flat-out sexy women in film. And that animal magnetism comes in handy here, filling in empty areas with a slow-simmering carnality. And you’ve got give her props for going out on a shaky limb and finding moments of revelation in a performance that could simply have been, well, not even skin deep.