Darkness. Through the darkness, births light. Small at first, barely there. A white circle the size of a needle tip, slowly growing. Sound creeps in. A mesh of incomprehensible auditory measures layered with incoherent words. The light grows. The sound clears. Without warning, the screen is filled with white. A giant eyeball appears. It’s a perfect eye, void of redness. The sound even louder, the words slightly clearer.
It is born. And so it begins.
Essentially, the film is about a mysterious woman who is not a woman. Who It is and where It came from will be for you to deduce. But throughout the film, we watch as It drives around Scotland in a large white van, routinely luring unsuspecting men into the car. Now, because It is played by Scarlett Johansson, It has no trouble getting men into the car. It speaks with a gentle British accent and inflects a faultless babe in the woods routine that the men find desirable. Once in the van, It uses mild sexual innuendos to make clear that It wants the man. When things go as planned (and, on occasion, they do not), It baits the men into a shabby home and what happens next is best left seen, not read.
We watch as It engages in this routine repeatedly, with It occasionally stepping out of the van to attract men elsewhere. There’s a scene on a beach, for instance, that is one of the most quietly unsettling things I’ve ever seen in a film. Void of gratuitous violence and dialogue, the scene perfectly displays Its apathy for emotion and human worth. However, concerning plot and character motivation, Glazer has been very careful to reveal that Under the Skin is about It becoming She. And that’s the perfect way to describe the film. Because, after a particularly memorable experience with a badly deformed man, the apathy It is consumed by slowly starts to fade. Emotion creeps in. She is born, and we begin again.
Under the Skin is unlike anything I’ve seen. It’s a mesmerizing experiment of emotional expression and individuality. At the center is Scarlett Johansson, who is featured in nearly every frame of the picture. It’s by far Johansson’s finest work yet – delicate, restrained, and boldly, intentionally, flat. It’s a role based entirely on sexuality, but, oddly, could very well be the least sensual performance of her career. I’ve admired her work for years, and appreciate that she’s previously taken on challenging roles that demand more than just a pretty face. But frankly, I didn’t know she had It in her. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable people in the world, and I so respect that, for her part in Under the Skin, she suspended all vanity in order to enhance the strength of the material. The star of this film is the story, and the lead actress has given herself over to it faultlessly.
Every other element of the picture is impeccable, but specific attention needs to be given to sound designer Johnnie Burn, whose complex and intricate sounds immerse us in the film’s unique world. I’m not a skilled enough audio engineer to fully articulate the mastery of Burn’s work. There’s a specificity to it that is wholly original; a hollow, reverberating echo that will haunt you. Mica Levi’s original score is equally impressive, accompanying Burn’s work seamlessly. At times, it’s difficult to tell whose work you’re listening to – Burn’s sonic waves, or Levi’s unobtrusive rhythms. Together, they create an auditory paradise that is as important to the film as Johansson’s performance.
Daniel Landin’s digital, immersive cinematography, Paul Watts’ patient and precise editing, even Steven Noble’s costume design – which amusingly puts Johansson in a wardrobe that only outsiders would find conventionally sexy – all service the material perfectly. To say I’m taken with the execution of the film would be a drastic understatement. But there’s more going on here. Beyond what is on the screen, the way Glazer got it there is something that should not be overlooked.
In an effort to inject a sense of realism into the picture, most of the supporting actors featured in Under the Skin are real people who didn’t know they were being filmed. Glazer hid multiple cameras in the van Johansson was driving, and filmed her as she cruised around Glasgow, attempting to pick up men. When men got in the car, Johansson improvised dialogue with the passengers, who, again, were completely unaware that they were being filmed. Glazer and his team (including Johansson’s bodyguard) followed closely in another vehicle, and once Johansson’s conversation with a passenger was completed, she pulled over and Glazer would approach them to explain what had happened.
There’s an immediate danger to filming this way that Johansson would’ve had to courageously overlook. Once past the threat, she was able to tap into a specific level of vulnerability that so expertly services her character. Another factor to consider: Glazer and his team had to throw away hours and hours of excellent footage. Several of the men who got into the van refused to sign the rights to be in the film, forcing Glazer to toss out all of their respective footage. I can’t imagine how maddening, yet oddly inspiring, that must have been. And it wasn’t just in the van. Glazer and his crew hid cameras all over Glasgow and told Johansson to go out and just be. So, when It falls in the middle of a busy Glasgow sidewalk and waits to be helped up, that actually happened. None of it was staged or rehearsed. That’s how you create a film unlike all others – you detach and observe. You capture, capture, capture, and shape tirelessly in editing.
Under the Skin is the kind of film you don’t see, but rather, experience. Glazer is an accomplished music video director who has previously made two feature films, the thrilling and hilarious Sexy Beast, and the eerie mind trip that is Birth. Under the Skin is his finest film accomplishment yet – the type of movie I’m indebted to, because it brazenly asserts that originality in cinema still exists. It’s one of the few films from recent years that I’ve actively fantasized about for nearly every waking moment since seeing it (twice). And, in my world, that’s about as good a feeling as I can experience. A