Visionary inventiveness is such a lost art in contemporary cinema that impatient audiences may bolt for the exits at Under the Skin. Those who stick it out and let Jonathan Glazer’s film flood their senses are in for something extraordinary.
Plot? Here’s what you need to know: An unnamed woman, played by Scarlett Johansson with unshakably alluring menace, cruises the streets of Scotland in a cargo van looking for men. She’s not the usual femme fatale. She’s an alien, and what she does to these guys, well, that’s for you to find out.
Glazer, a music-video director credited with two provocative features (Sexy Beast, Birth), has joined with writer Walter Campbell to adapt Michael Faber’s 2000 novel into a story Faber himself might not quite recognize. As adaptations go, this one’s a highwire act. Using hidden digital cameras, Glazer shows us real Scots reacting to this sexy beast behind the wheel. The effect is eerie and electrifying. Glazer attempts to let us see the human world through the eyes of a nonhuman, evocatively reflected in Mica Levi’s score.
By the time this alien begins to see humans as more than specimens, Under the Skin has allowed us to view ourselves with fresh eyes. Johansson is phenomenal in every sense of the word. She joins Glazer in creating a brave experiment in cinema that richly rewards the demands it makes. The result is an amazement, a film of beauty and shocking gravity.