‘Under the Skin’ casts a hypnotic spell of experiencing the world for the first time


Among the first discernible sounds in Under 
 the Skin — director Jonathan Glazer's 
instant masterpiece of meditation-on-the-human-experience horror — is Scarlett Johansson's voice, practicing sounds. It runs through individual letter phonetics, as though for the first time, and then individual words, all while the screen is consumed by the construction of what appears to be a human eye. The pairing of those sounds with that image captures everything that's so gobsmacking about this movie: It virtually demands learning an entirely new language of movie storytelling.

Moviegoers often dread risky filmmaking — sometimes because they fear someone is daring them to "get it," sometimes because they feel their time and money have been wasted if they don't. And Under the Skin is a daring approach to what easily could have been a simple genre tale spiced with a little sex and violence. But Glazer takes an idea, from the raw material of Michael Faber's source-material novel, about what it's like to be experiencing the world through eyes and ears that have never seen or heard it — and carrying viewers into sharing that experience makes it as unsettling as it is mind-blowing.

It shouldn't be considered a spoiler to note that Johansson's never-named character in Under the Skin is not of this world. And she's built to be a hunter, of a very particular kind: Prowling the streets of Glasgow and surrounding Scottish towns, she uses human libido as the bait, luring men intoxicated with the promise of having sex with this beautiful, willing "woman" to their doom in a room that feels like a universe of blackness.

Glazer (Birth) and co-screenwriter Walter Campbell refuse to spell out most of the details of this particular close encounter. It's clear that "The Girl" has assistance in her mission, from a group of motorcycle-riding "cleaners," and that whatever the men she catches are meant for, there's no coming back from it. If you're a viewer for whom "what's going on" is an essential piece of your movie-going experience, Skin demands your full attention (and only partly because the dense Scottish accents can be a challenge).

Then again, it's hard to imagine why anyone's attention would wane from Glazer's startling images. Some moments he captures are impossible to shake: a human body reduced to a flapping, floating husk; a tear falling from the eye of a body that's outlived its usefulness; one of The Girl's targets, a man with severe facial deformities, pinching his own hand, unable to believe a beautiful woman is interested in him; a crying baby abandoned on a rocky beach. Combined with Mica Levi's unsettling music score and Johnnie Burn's haunting sound design, Under the Skin becomes the kind of complete sensory experience movies almost never strive to be.

If that sensory experience is disorienting, it's only because it should be. Johansson's terrific, almost entirely physical performance pulls us into the perspective of someone who initially is merely mimicking humanity; it's chilling to watch her flip the switch from flirtatious banter to dead-eyed stare when her seduction efforts are unsuccessful. Yet as The Girl absorbs more human experience — walking through a mall, looking curiously at her own "human" face and body or even attempting to eat food humans eat — she begins to change. And part of becoming more connected to a human experience means being, at times, lost and at risk.

Many early descriptions of Under the Skin compared director Glazer's work to that of Stanley Kubrick, and it's easy to see how some hypnotic imagery and stark compositions during the opening scenes could inspire that connection. Yet Glazer uses a chaos-embracing methodology Kubrick never would have considered, hiding cameras in a car and along streets to observe Johansson's interactions with unwitting civilian passersby. That formula — a combination of precision planning and the unpredictability of real people — is part of what makes it such a remarkable piece of work. It's unconventional enough that it might at first feel quite alien; once you surrender to everything you see and hear, it grabs on to you somewhere vital and human.

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