You've seen this so many times in movies and television: A predator drives around in a nondescript car, sizing up potential victims of the opposite sex with a coolly appraising eye. Is this one gullible? Is this one lonely enough? Would anyone miss this one? In Under the Skin, the predator is Scarlett Johansson, buried deep in a huge brown fur coat and a black wig, and she's scouring the streets looking for young men to lure and kill. Her purposes are nefarious, but this isn't anything so simple or so banal as a gender-flipped serial-killer film. In fact, Under the Skin isn't like anything you've ever seen before. Director and co-screenwriter Jonathan Glazer isn't interested in relaying a traditional narrative, and those with low tolerance for repetition or abstraction will absolutely hate it.
That's their loss.
Glazer's third film after Sexy Beast and Birth is intentionally aggressive toward its viewers. Composer Mica Levi's score is filled with keening whines, jittery violins, and droning, mechanical noises hovering in the background. At least three times, the camera passes over scenes that can only be described as nightmarish—as in, scenes that can and will inspire nightmares—with something akin to Johansson's dispassionate eye. There is nudity, and sex, and even a sensual cake-eating scene, but none of it is pleasurable. The nakedness is that of the morgue, or the operating room, and the food is not so much spat out as rejected like a bad organ. Everything you see, from the rugged countryside of Scotland to the faces of unsuspecting extras, has something wrong with it. It occurs to you that maybe the flaw isn't in the thing you're looking at, but the way you're doing the looking. This is a film about watching, and the violence that watching can do.
Glazer has an unsettling tendency to put the thing you want to stare at directly in the dead center of the frame at all times: the glossy helmet of a motorcyclist; the imperceptibly twitching green of Johansson's iris; the fragile heads of potential victims as they walk down the street, being scouted without their knowledge. I can't recall the last time a director tried so hard to give the viewer exactly what they think they want to see, front and center. It's an unsettling feeling, even more so because Glazer dips the rest of the film in velvety blacks that swallow the objects of our attention whole, leaving an absolute void. Sometimes people sink into the darkness and then pop right out. Sometimes they disappear forever.
The novel Under the Skin is based on is science fiction, and the film and the book share a basic DNA. But Michel Faber's novel is a twisty and endlessly surprising journey through genre that toys with its readers' allegiances, while Glazer's film feels like a puzzle that doesn't want to be solved. Johansson does incredible work: With very few lines and directions that undoubtedly involve the word "less" at every opportunity—less action, less life, less empathy—she creates a character that guides us on a tourist's journey through hell and then just leaves us there to fend for ourselves.
The terrors that Glazer shows us pale in comparison to the ones we don't see. A potentially brutal attack is coolly sidestepped and then immediately forgotten; one character's salvation is snipped short offscreen. Under the Skin walks a fine balance between accusing your gaze of causing pain and reminding you that all you can do is watch, helplessly, as a chilly universe unfolds exactly as it had to. We're guilty and innocent, victim and aggressor at the same time.