Under the Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer, Scarlett Johansson and a few unaware hitchhikers have made one of the best films of 2014.
Tom Clift
Published on May 26, 2014


Director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Birth) puts mankind under the microscope in his enigmatic sci-fi thriller Under the Skin. Unfolding like an arthouse version of Species, the film stars Scarlett Johansson as an extraterrestrial creature who travels around Scotland seducing human men. A cold, disturbing, impenetrable piece of filmmaking, it's a movie that will understandably alienate mainstream audiences, even as it carves a place for itself as a modern-day cult classic.

Reversing typical images of sexual predation, Glazer puts Johansson — a pale-skinned, dark-haired female — in the driver's seat of an anonymous white van. The bulk of the film takes place in the vehicle, as Johansson cruises the outskirts of Glasgow in search of her next victim. What happens to the men once they're ensnared is one of many pieces of information Glazer initially withholds, playing with our fears and assumptions and cultivating a sickening sense of dread.

Aesthetically, Glazer adopts a naturalistic style that's sundered by moments of Kubrickian intensity. Lingering shots of pedestrians have an air of dispassionate voyeurism — at times it feels as though we too are from another world, viewing our own species from afar. A soundtrack of mechanical rumblings and synthesised screeches sharpens the already menacing atmosphere. Particularly haunting is the track that accompanies the seduction sequences, which rises and falls with mesmerising rhythm.

Johansson's performance is the chilling antithesis of her recent work in Spike Jonze's Her. Although frequently frightening, there's a genuine sense of otherworldliness to her characters that prevents us from seeing her as a straight-up villain. More than once, you wonder how aware she is of the consequences of her actions, a question that, as the movie continues, leads to unexpected feelings of empathy. It's a credit to Johansson that she's able to walk that line.

Her victims, meanwhile, are played by actual Glaswegian hitchhikers, picked up by Johansson and filmed on hidden cameras (consent was sought afterwards). The guerrilla approach heightens the movie's realism, as the 'actors' are legitimately unaware of the gruesome fate that awaits them.

Creepy and glacially paced, Under the Skin is certainly not for everyone; it's easy to imagine viewers enticed by the prospect of seeing a nude Scarlett Johansson storming out of the cinema and asking for their money back. But for anyone keen on expanding their cinematic horizons, Glazer's latest is the best film of 2014 so far.


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