Some viewers will be intoxicated by Under the Skin, while others might run screaming from the theater. Such a polarizing reaction shouldn’t surprise British director Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), whose bizarre, genre-bending mood piece generates some consistently powerful imagery even if it’s never clear exactly what the film trying to say.
Under the Skin is bleak and difficult to watch at times — certainly not traditional escapist fare — yet also intellectually challenging and visually stimulating for those with patience. Scarlett Johansson stars as an unnamed female alien landing in Scotland, whose cold and calculating primary task is to seduce unsuspecting hitchhikers by asking for directions. Once she gets them in her plain white van, she takes them into her mind-bending world that combines elements of fantasy and reality, causing them to disappear. Other human interactions demonstrate a similar lack of emotional recognition or empathy.
The deliberately paced, high-minded film frequently borders on self-indulgence. Its uneven and episodic structure works better in spurts than as a whole. But it’s so physically and emotionally raw, so vibrant and original, that its flaws are easier to overlook. The dialogue is sparse in the ambiguous script by rookie screenwriter Walter Campbell — based on a book by Dutch novelist Michel Faber — and when the characters do speak, most of them do so in thick Scottish accents that aren’t easily decipherable. Sometimes it feels like a tease with its frustrating aloofness, along with its head-scratching narrative detours, including a sequence in which the main character slowly eats and chokes on a slice of cake in a restaurant without further explanation. The film feels like an experiment that always straddles the line between provocative and pretentious, but at feature length, that sort of strategy becomes tedious.
Under the Skin deals with themes of gender roles, sexuality and intimacy, in a way that’s more unsettling than titillating. Give Johansson credit for audacity in her mostly non-verbal performance, which relies heavily on facial expressions and body language as she moves from one liaison to the next. Dark and mysterious, the film forces moviegoers out of their comfort zone and is not for all tastes. Yet by the end, at least it gets under the skin of both its characters and the audience.