Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is a challenge to talk about because it is, ultimately, a mood film, a strange visual and auditory journey with no scenes of forced exposition in sight. Nothing is spelled out and you are left to ponder its mysteries later in your own dark and reflective moments. Whether this works for you or not depends entirely on your willingness to be drawn into its bizarre world as I was.
On the streets of Glasgow a young woman (Scarlett Johansson) has a task: to pick up men and collect them for some undefined purpose. This is her mission, the reason for which she appears to exist. Johansson is absolutely amazing here, getting across a range from manipulative coldness and forced niceness to budding curiosity at the human environment she is now in–all of this is with very little dialogue; the film puts a strong emphasis on “show, don’t tell”. What dialogue there is between the woman and her victims is very natural, partially because many of the men the woman picks up and talks to were actually members of the general public who had no idea they were being filmed. It’s a simple thing, but it adds to the realism within the surrealism.
The most apparent thing throughout the film is the ongoing sense of dread; you are constantly feeling as though something horrific is about to happen. The film’s brilliant score by Mica Levi does a fantastic job of highlighting this, eerie strings building to abnormal synthetic noises. This works with the film’s beautiful cinematography which mixes the raw footage of the van dashboard camera, the peculiar imagery, and some striking shots of the Scottish landscape. The power of the audio and visual elements of the film is particularly captured in the dream-like scenes where we see what happens to the men that the woman has collected. However, the two moments that are possibly the film’s most uncomfortable are ones of detached apathy which take place on a dark and rocky beach.
I am once again presented with a challenge in that as much as I wish to highlight some of the film’s later scenes and themes I don’t want to give too much away. So I will simply say this: in a few years this is going to be a great film to discuss and contemplate. There is a lot to be read here touching on gendered threat, sexual and physical agency, humanity, and the nature of prey and predator. The finale also brings the sense of threat full circle, but has a touch of melancholy to it.
Under the Skin is a strange, tense and very rewarding film to watch. For some its oddities will be too eccentric and its pace too languid, but for those who allow themselves to sink into it, Under the Skin wraps you in its hold and gives you moments of beauty and horror that will stay with you.