To truly get “Under the Skin,” it’s helpful to come in with no preconceptions, no expectations, and just give yourself over to the primal ooze of the experience filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has created and Scarlett Johansson has made brilliantly, unnervingly real.
Watching this film feels like a genesis moment — of sci-fi fable, of filmmaking, of performance — with all the ambiguity and excitement that implies. It’s as if director and star have gone into some alien space to discover what embodies a person, exposing the interior dynamic of psyche and soul and its relationship to the exterior.
If that all sounds very abstract, not to mention bewildering, it is. Yet for all the esoteric notions floated, “Under the Skin” also affords concrete ways to see the world fresh through new eyes.
The film begins with the construction of that eye, a scene that leaves images and questions hanging in the air, creating a state of limbo that infuses “Under the Skin.” This moment comes like a quiet demand from the director as well: either accept or resist the abstraction. If resistance is your choice, walk out and spare yourself undue angst. If you accept, prepare for a sensory-saturated experience filled with ambient sounds and off-center reflections of life as we know it. The scenes, sounds and a score by Mica Levi linger and unsettle long after the lights have gone up.
Technically based on Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, in reality the movie sheds almost everything but the central conceit of an alien hidden inside a human form on the hunt for men and the Scottish setting. Good choices both. Where the novelist conjures up a vegan nightmare that involves farming, fattening and slaughtering to feed a starving alien race, Glazer, who wrote the script with Walter Campbell, pares it closer to the notion of what constitutes humanness itself.
Johansson strips everything away as well, including her clothing. But it is the emotional baring she does that is so riveting as her character goes from robotic to something closer to real. The actress is already building an eclectic body of work from the superhero of “Avengers” to the supercomputer voice of “Her.” In front of Glazer’s camera she is staggeringly, fearlessly uncomfortable in her own skin, the physicality of making her body seem like a foreign form is extraordinary.
The first half of the movie is spent on the logistics of the hunt and the disposition of the prey. None of the characters have names; all but Johansson are random real people whom the actress spotted while driving the streets of Glasgow and seduced into her van. Director of photography Daniel Landin buried micro-cameras throughout the van’s front cab so that neither the actress nor the strangers can play to the lens.
It creates disassociation rather than connection in ways that are unerring but affecting. The back of the van hid Glazer, Landin and a skeletal crew. Another van followed so that releases from the unsuspecting could be gotten, makeup reapplied, hair properly mussed.
Outside the van, the film captures the ebb and flow of ordinary people on the streets of Glasgow and other Scottish locales. It serves to ground the sci-fi story and lends an air of authenticity to the look without feeling like a documentary. The the serendipity of these scenes kept reminding me of photo-blogger Brandon Stanton’s ongoing snapshot series “Humans of New York.” Real moments, real people, real slices of life.
What happens to the men after they get into the van unfolds like a string of short stories. She begins to draw them out, to get a sense of who they are, what she needs to know to lure them into a house where the trap is laid. The patches of conversations will feel familiar, those first forays at connecting with someone else, the sizing up of one another that we tend as adults to do without thinking.
One exchange is particularly telling. A stranger with a disfigurement akin to the Elephant Man gets into the van. Where most would see ravages of the disease, she sees only a man, not registering the difference in appearance that would be the first thing the rest of us would see. Unplanned like the other encounters, it is exceedingly effective in underscoring Glazer’s quest to take us beyond the exterior.
For all the authenticity the filmmaker goes for, he is equally interesting when the film shifts to things not of this world. Glazer has always been a visual, experiential filmmaker. “Sexy Beast” did gangster somehow more darkly, “Birth” did death differently. But he’s never gone further than he has here.
When the action moves from the van into the house where the “animals” will be processed, the visualization moves to another plane of existence. The specifics of our world fade to undefined blackness, clothes fall away as do fears as the men follow her, everything slowing. It evokes a museum diorama of early man emerging from the muck, in reverse.
There are other mysteries. A man on a motorcycle, somehow a part of the alien operation, appearing and disappearing. A strange scene on a desolate stretch of shoreline captures Johansson’s status as observer, other, focused solely on her mission, unmoved by the drama unfolding around her.
The character’s turning point comes slowly as she begins to absorb what she sees. When it hits full force, you see what she feels, how she feels as she begins to become less alien, more like us. It is not an easy journey, nor comfortable as Glazer and his star reach for that new existence, that deeper humanity. The fiction and the truth of the film succeed as few movies do in getting under your skin.
‘Under the Skin’
MPAA rating: R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; AMC Century City