You can put it away now: the idea that the unnervingly attractive Scarlett Johansson only became a superstar due to the fact that she is the human embodiment of a 1940’s bomber girl. It’s easy to decide on obvious categories – something that she has undoubtedly had to fight herself – and she could have effortlessly made her career as The Pretty Girl in all kinds of meaningless rom-coms and action flicks. But then you look at her filmography and you see a ridiculously diverse selection – from The Girl With The Pearl Earring and Lost In Translation to her deliciously deadly stints as Black Widow in the various Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America blockbusters.
And now, with director Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Under The Skin from Michael Faber’s novel, she can finally draw a line under the stereotype. In a movie that contains enough twists and horrors to keep you thinking for weeks, she carries the whole narrative while barely saying a word in a stunning, revelatory performance that is a career best to date.
First premiering at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, much has been said about Glazer’s echoing of Kubrick’s surreal, symbolic visuals, something that shines through from the very first frame. It’s oppressive and disturbing from the start: Mica Levi’s fantastic score – part Penderecki, part ants-eating-my-face-nightmare – creeps out into the darkness while a tiny pinprick of light grows and bulges, slowly, so very slowly, into an eye. Soon, we’re introduced to Johansson’s unnamed character and follow her on her journey of temptation, seduction, pity, empathy and blood. We’re never left in any doubt as to her non-human origins, but beyond that, the entire film’s exposition is as sparse as the dialogue.
This is where the film may not work for some. It eschews any resemblance of the Hollywood narrative structure and tells its story with long, static shots, tiny reactions and minute expressions. It is definitely a clear example of film as art so, much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, some audiences may need more handholding through the unfolding layers of meaning as the story progresses. Patient viewers, though, will be richly rewarded. Through the repeated Venus flytrap sequences in the first half, you’ll start spotting nuances and variances that lead you into the second. It’s terrifying, thrilling stuff.
All of these hints come from Johansson. It’s really her movie, although praise should also be heaped on the supporting cast (most of which, amazingly enough, were not actors but people who were tricked into the honey pot then went willingly with Glazer on the journey). It’s this simple: this film would have been an utter failure with the wrong person in the lead. She somehow manages to use her position of awkward indifference to project, though pause, looks and heartbeats, the merest of hints as to the changing mindset of her protagonist.
What she, and many of the cast, expose themselves to (and nudity is a recurring theme, skin on show for the predator and prey alike) is a testament of the bond of trust that must be part of Jonathan Glazer’s directorial style. Not only is the film gorgeous to look at, framed by an unhurried pace that is precise and confident, the acting is utterly riveting. There’s never any sense of overreaching from the various human-alien puppets, nor from the various men of the Scottish night doomed to suffer. Tonally, too, the film has a maturity that sees it earn its horror sub-categorisation. However, the type of horror here isn’t that of blood and flesh (although that does occur) or cheap jump cuts designed for full shock value. It’s that of slow, uncomfortable turns of the screw; situations played before you with a passive camera refusing to turn away. It’s been a long time since I’ve walked out of a cinema, but an extended scene – designed to reinforce how the aliens are completely unempathetic of our tiny human needs – was so disturbing that, if my legs hadn’t been dead weights, might have pushed me out into the light. It’s needed, though. It’s a terrible, awful point that needs to be made so the rest of the film can work.
To reveal more would be a spoiler, but to suddenly realise that all the “I wonder if”‘ thoughts that had been collecting in your head start proving to be true, the extent of Johansson’s performance is suddenly revealed and you realise she’s led you through the film’s exposition with barely a word spoken. And the words she does speak – her bait, filled with the promise of sexual ecstasy- are formed in a completely faultless English accent, cool warmth amongst the broad Scottish tones of her prey. She handles her character’s emotional shift in the second half with equal aplomb, never giving more than is needed to show her brewing dissonance, making it all the more real. Her story becomes that of the audience. Her fear is ours.
There’s a point in the first half of Under The Skin that I wondered if it was “a cinema movie”, whether the scenes and narrative could have been enjoyed just as well in the quiet of your own home. The hunts, the slow burn, the sci-fi edges that sharpen for the kill; all elements that could be appreciated and analysed on a small screen. However, as the film pushes to its final, brutal conclusion, this doubt was completely removed. It’s a story that needs your focus, your eyes, your mind filled with the images flashed in front of it. It wants you to become engrossed as it changes from an observer’s diary to an exploration of what it means to be human. The film wants you to be scared, and in that, it succeeds; as the final image floated up into the heavens and it cut to dark credits, the music loomed out once more and I had the suffocating realisation that I was alone in the cinema. This is Under The Skin‘s final trick, one that would be near impossible to achieve in the comfort of your home: fear of death, the unknown, and of becoming the prey ourselves. I’ve never been so relieved to feel the lights come back on.
I can’t recommend enough seeing Under The Skin if there’s a cinema showing near you. Not only is it a masterwork by a director who clearly understands how to subtly tell a story, and do so with a diverse collection of beautiful vistas, but it contains a wonderful central performance that will be referenced for a very long time. Just good luck trying to stop thinking about it.