After you've seen Under the Skin, come back and listen to our Spoiler Special with Dana Stevens and Dan Kois:
“Do you have family here?”
“Do you live alone?”
“You’re meeting someone?”
The beautiful woman in the van has rolled down her window and is asking you questions. If you answer, “Yeah, I’m meeting a friend,” or if those friends approach, she drives away and you never see her again. If you say, “No, I’m here on holiday,” or “I don’t have a girlfriend,” she opens the door and invites you in. “Do you think I’m pretty?” she asks.
The beautiful woman looks a bit like Scarlett Johansson but is not, because Scarlett Johansson would not be in a van in Glasgow, Scotland, and because she is not a beautiful woman at all. She is a hunter, and you are the prey.
Very freely adapted by director Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell from Michael Faber's novel, Under the Skin is a horror film starring Scarlett Johansson, but what unspools onscreen is so dramatically different from what most moviegoers might anticipate each of those words to represent—“horror,” “film,” “starring Scarlett Johansson”—as to render them useless. It’s unnerving and otherworldly. It’s beautiful and terrible to behold. It’s a discomfort machine. You’d be crazy not to watch it, but you might be unhappy you did.
Much of Under the Skin was shot (by Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin) with eight hidden cameras in the cab of that white van—Glazer and a skeleton crew riding in the back, Johansson driving. We see her character silently watch actual unsuspecting Glaswegian men amble past, each one of them in danger for just a moment. Once one gets into the van, we watch this real human trying as hard as we are to suss out what is happening to him. (Reportedly the actress’s bodyguard was nearby, just in case.) We see Johansson’s unnamed character entice numerous men this way, drive them away, and then … well, it ends badly. Johansson’s character is both more and less than she seems, alienated from those around her, blank and chilly, a widget in a disassembly line that, as far as I can tell, has been operating a long, long time.
Of course, the movie does not spell this out for you. Information is doled out slowly, but when we see new things, they are astonishing—so that watching the film, I felt a mix of frustration that I always knew what was going to happen (a man, a van, a plan, Johansson) and of terror about what might actually appear on screen. (One page of my notes reads simply, “OH SHIT.”) Glazer (Sexy Beast) hasn’t directed a film since 2004’s Birth. Under the Skin shares the formal elegance of Birth but is both more inventive and more restrained. The visual and editing restraint is notable, too, because despite its deliberate pace, the film is bristling with ideas.
Under the Skin opens with a bewildering white dot in the middle of a black screen, which grows into a bright light as violins buzz on the soundtrack. (The ingenious score is by Mica Levi of Micachu and the Shapes.) After some inexplicable physical process is finished, we are staring at an eye. It’s Johansson’s eye, but though we are peering deep into it, it takes a long time to see what’s underneath. After a string of warm, funny performances—most recently in Her and Don Jon—Johansson is blank throughout much of Under the Skin. It’s a remarkable performance for its stillness and intelligence, and for the uncommon way it was shot. Actors aren’t Navy SEALs, I know, but Johansson was, in fact, brave to take on this role: brave in that it’s a sharp left turn from what audiences expect or even like; brave in that she embraced an artistically bold method of building a movie when most other movie stars would have said no thanks to the idea of chatting up random Scotsmen in a van.
The result is a truly unique film that captures something about being alive in the world despite seeming to be a product of outer space. The film critic David Ehrlich has tweeted that the film feels like it wasn’t even made by humans, and I’d go further, to say that the movie dehumanizes its leading woman and attempts, disconcertingly, to dehumanize its audience. A scene early in the film, on a wave-swept beach, was so appalling that I covered my eyes, but when I uncovered them and kept watching I was forced, like everyone else in the audience, into an inhuman stance. I was willing to watch more to discover what was underneath the surface. Once I found out, I was frozen in place, and then Scarlett Johansson and Jonathan Glazer had their way with me.
Update, April 4, 2014: This article has been updated to clarify that the movie is loosely based on the novel of the same name.