Under the Skin review

Approaching a review of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin, his first feature since Birth in 2004, does feel somewhat like a trap. Cliched phrases such as dreamlike and atmospheric would be the immediate touchstones in trying to get across the somewhat unusual nature of this haunting picture, but they do very little to get across quite how startling a work this is.

Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin, working from a script adaptation by Glazer and Walter Campbell of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, have created an arresting visual miasma, filled with images that haunt one’s mind long after the film has ended. These are tied to a stripped back narrative that almost feels irrelevant when confronted with the potency of the images on screen, but which centres on an alien, a mesmeric performance by Scarlett Johansson, who lands on earth and appears to be tasked with seducing men. She then lures these men back to a house in which they are somehow harvested through being consumed by a thick, black ooze.

Johansson’s character, credited as Laura, approaches her harvesting task with a certain blankness and seldom any visible emotion but with efficiency and what may, from time to time, seem like hints of intrigue and confusion. Her work often comes across as mundane, especially as she drives around Scotland in a van chatting up the men that she encounters, but there is the sense of a slow and very gradual creeping development in her character as she is altered by every one of her encounters. In her later interactions, the character moves beyond her original mission and it is in these later scenes that the scope of Under the Skin finally becomes clear.

The uncaring central character reveals more about humanity than perhaps any human could hope to, her outsider’s perspective shining a fresh light on well-trodden ground. Her unique viewpoint is particularly evident in one of the film’s most haunting, and frankly upsetting, scenes, one in which a child is left screaming for its parents on a wintery, stoney beach.

The emotional coldness of the scene is contrasted by another in which Laura trips over in a street and is helped by those around her. It is through these juxtapositions and connections that Under the Skin coalesces into both a moving and intellectually rewarding experience.

But it is one that you have to work at from the moment the lights go down. As Mica Levi’s extraordinary score fills the cinema and hallucinogenic images begin to consume the screen, you firmly in Glazer’s grip and, even once you are expelled back into to the real world, everything will seem slightly off-kilter and strange. It’s an affecting experience and one that will stay with you for some time.

Under the Skin is out now in the UK and in the US on the 4th of April.