If the reward for sitting through endless anodyne Hollywood train wrecks is Jonathan Glazer’s gloriously idiosyncratic Under The Skin then hand over the popcorn and bottomless brown sugar water.
Glazer has never been one to shy away from subversion. His brilliant debut Sexy Beast (2000) played with our expectations of what had become an exhausted genre – the British gangster film – by reverse casting hard man Ray Winstone as a quietly terrified retiree and Ben ‘Ghandi’ Kingsley as one of cinema’s most memorable psychopaths.
His astonishing follow-up Birth (2004), meanwhile, remains one of cinema’s most under-appreciated love stories, although it’s as far removed from the Nicholas Sparks school of romance as you can get.
This long-awaited third feature once again finds Glazer ripping up the rulebook by casting Scarlett Johannson as an alien being who adopts the guise of a beautiful English woman to stalk and harvest unwitting men on the streets of Scotland. On the face of it, the casting of one of the sexiest women on the planet to play such a part makes perfect sense. However, Species (1995) this ain’t as Glazer’s deeply disquieting film means the sight of a semi-clad Johannson ends up being both creepy and (ahem) alienating.
This undermining of Johannson’s natural screen allure has also been explored very recently in Spike Jonze’s Her (in which the actress played an operating system) and the two films share similar themes of loneliness and what it means to be human.
When we first observe the alien she is a blank slate, having just taken the body of the dead woman as if newly born into the world. She applies makeup after noticing how cosmetics are used to enhance appearance and gets behind the wheel of an innocuous white van to snare men into a fate that’s as startling as it is unnerving.
Once these men fall under her spell, they willingly allow themselves to be consumed by a pool of black viscous fluid, the purpose of which becomes clear during a moment of hypnotic horror when the alien’s latest victim watches as another man is literally sucked dry. It’s as close to a surreal nightmare as one would ever wish to see.
As she goes about her business – all the while being closely monitored by another alien who has inhabited the body of a male motorcyclist – we begin to observe increasingly human characteristics in her eyes. She may wear the face of a charming and alluring woman who’s interested in the conversation of her prey, but the windows of the soul come to tell a different story as we register guilt, confusion and repulsion breaking through the veneer.
Glazer placed secret cameras inside the van to film Johannson driving around for real, picking up unsuspecting passers-by and engaging them in conversation to see what would happen. In interviews he’s alluded to great footage that had to be left out because the person concerned didn’t want to sign a release form. It’s a tantalising thought to wonder what other directions the film could have taken had this footage been available.
Just as some parts inevitably have a rough and ready feel to them, other sections are stunningly realised, in particular a devastating scene set on a beach involving a surfer, a couple and their baby. The moment shortly afterwards when the motorcyclist returns to the beach to retrieve an object is one of the most starkly chilling sequences this reviewer can recall.
Glazer’s eerie visuals are lent even greater impact by British singer/songwriter Mica Levi’s queasy and discordant score that envelops you in the same way as the mysterious black liquid.
I’ve never been one for star ratings, but it strikes me that anyone giving Under The Skin a fence-sitting three-out-of-five hasn’t properly watched what is one of the most uncompromising, mysterious and polarising films in recent years. You’ll either love or hate it. Me? I thought it was astonishing.