Whilst those hailing Jonathan Glazer as the new Kubrick may be a tad premature with such exultations, there is no denying that Glazer is a unique voice in the filmmaking landscape, crafting films that, for many, prove challenging both thematically and narratively with characters that are far from likeable. With Under the Skin, Glazer presents his most obscure feature yet with a foray into science-fiction that leaves many questions unanswered and will no doubt leave audiences divided. An adaptation of a novel by Michel Faber, this a dark film in many ways; from the lighting, to the actions of the characters to the bleak version of Scotland that is presented as the backdrop for the strange goings-on that are never explained or contextualised. Scarlett Johansson is mesmerising in the lead role, a character whose name we never discover that is so unlike anything Johansson has done recently.
Johansson’s unnamed protagonist trawls the streets of Scotland in a white van, seeking out men who are ostensibly alone in the world and whose disappearance will cause nary a ripple in the lives of anybody else. Almost always operating under the cover of night, she leads her unsuspecting prey to a dilapidated house where they are engulfed by a liquid blackness that somehow seems to serve as a life force for Johansson’s character. Dialogue is minimal, confined mostly to the briefest of conversations as our predator lures her prey into her hypnotic web. Her utter lack of emotion and morality proves the catalyst for some very wrenching scenes, none more so than when she watches a couple drown, kidnaps their would-be rescuer and leaves a young baby crying, abandoned on the beach, completely alone as darkness falls on a typically cold and windy Scottish day. Her indifference to the suffering of others is chilling but necessary because when our huntress does start to make an emotional connection with the men she meets, including a young man with a facial disfigurement and a lonely good samaritan that she meets at a bus stop in a small town, she quite literally starts to unravel.
For much of the running time of this film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a feminist statement of some kind, as strange as that sounds given it is the work of a 49-year-old British man. First and foremost, it is a film with a female character (of sorts) that drives every aspect of the narrative and, whilst Johansson is naked at various times it is, in fact, the men she meets who are the most gratuitously exposed. It plays as a stark contrast to the endless array of films in which women are the prey at the mercy of predatory and manipulative men. Furthermore, she has a motorcycle riding offsider (who also remains unnamed throughout) at her beck and call, to clean up any mess she has left behind. The exact nature of the relationship between the pair, or how they communicate with each other given we never see them in the same place at the same time, is one of many mysteries that permeate this surreal cinematic experience. Ultimately though, the ending forced me to reconsider such feminist interpretations and totally re-evaluate my reading of everything that went before it.
Many people will find this film difficult, from the elusiveness of the character to her penchant for preying on innocent men. However, she never forces any of them to get into the van and she does not pursue them for sex, it is purely for survival. Her appearance here following the likes of Don Jon and Her seems to be part of a strategy from Johansson to complement her blockbuster roles with more sedate and interesting pieces and it is a welcome move from the actress who was so good in early outings such as Ghost World and Lost in Translation. With only his third feature, following the fabulous Sexy Beast and the polarising Birth, Glazer has firmly established himself as a filmmaker with a unique vision and a determination to bring interesting stories to the screen. There is nothing easy about this film and despite, or perhaps because of, that, it is an utterly bewitching experience. My guess is that viewers will either love it or loathe it and I can understand either reaction. For the record, I think Under the Skin is pretty darn good.