Haunting, Hypnotic "Under The Skin" Leaves Permanent Mark

You’re drifting off to sleep, on the cusp of unconsciousness, when suddenly a familiar sensation strikes. You’re falling. The setting is indecipherable, but the feeling is jarring enough that your body jerks to attention, as if to correct a problem it couldn’t correct were it actually in danger. It’s a feeling bottled by “Under The Skin,” Jonathan Glazer’s dazzling sci-fi opus, a film marooned somewhere between reality and a world of impenetrable nightmares. To quote Rod Serling’s indelible opening “Twilight Zone” narration, “Under The Skin” plainly “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” It burrows to your core and stays there, like great art tends to do. But what makes it indispensable is the path it takes to get there – a path unusual in the world of film, unheard of in science fiction.

The film opens on a note of creation – as evidenced by the name of the score’s opening track – with a liquid black pupil slowly penetrating a pearly white sclera, accented by the nervous swirls of a string section. Our subject is taking shape, soon to be revealed as an extraterrestrial that’s assumed the form of a voluptuous human female (Scarlett Johansson). Living entirely by the “show, don’t tell” adage, the film merely implies “Laura’s” mission – to lure men to a shadowy, otherworldly enclave, their organs meant for harvesting. Our lead is aided by a mysterious male figure on a motorcycle, their duplicitous dealings painted starkly. Laura is the bait, her cohort the cleaner.

Glazer accents the deceptively simple narrative and its unconventional sexual politics with an immense visual style, allowing us to see our world through Laura’s eyes. It’s cold and foreign to her, in the same way that hers – of inky blacks and burning reds – is to us. Many of the actors who portray her victims were allegedly unaware they were being filmed, a technique that adds to the voyeuristic bent of the narrative. As each one is trapped, like a fly in ointment, the percussive score thumps like a slowing heart and the string section screeches, as if gasping for air. These scenes aren’t particularly violent but they’re absolutely disturbing, evidencing Glazer’s worth as a storyteller.

The reciprocal relationship between lead and audience only grows throughout the film, it’s masterstroke being Laura’s shift from antagonist to protagonist. While she initially gets under our skin, the a-ha moment comes when we creep beneath hers. As she slowly internalizes what it means to be human – hastened by her interaction with a deformed man – her world is turned upside down, empathy clawing its way into her headspace. That a film so terrifying becomes genuinely charming in its latter stages is a staggering development, one abetted by Johansson’s dynamic, often silent performance.

As the narrative is at once challenging and accessible – it’s loosely based on the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber – the pic’s atmosphere reliably ties the piece together. Light isn’t an antidote to darkness here, merely a means of highlighting it, and shadows aren’t enough to conceal the wickedness of both man and extraterrestrial. Glazer effortlessly uses images – like that of a conveyor belt carrying the entrails of Laura’s victims – as visual and thematic signposts, cuing both horror and introspection on the part of the audience. It’s a balancing act that few filmmakers would even attempt. Glazer excels at it.

Mica Levi’s aforementioned score is a stunner, repurposing old sci-fi musical tropes – booming bass, dissonant strings – into something modern but timeless. Much of the soundtrack borrows heavily from Bernard Herrmann, but with good reason. Herrmann set the bar for the genre with his work in “Psycho” and “The Twilight Zone,” and Levi’s work here is a smart, loving tribute. By combining ambient sounds with tight melodic phrasing, she cuts to the dark core of the project, aligning beautifully with Glazer’s flair for atmospherics. Climactic track “Love” – featuring a gorgeous, cascading melody – is the standout, but the entire score synchronizes wonderfully with the pic’s sharp sound editing, hitting hard when necessary and pulling back when appropriate.

“Under The Skin” is undoubtedly a troubling watch, liable to leave viewers queasy, but it’s the mismatched feelings that come with that queasiness – empathy, sorrow, and, occasionally, delight – that make it such a thrill. It plays like a greatest hits of human emotion, combining everything great about film into one very unlikely sci-fi piece, leaving us with something essential, immediate, and invigorating. Its darkness is piercing, but so are its glimmers of hope. Like so many classics, it works singularly across multiple genres – horror, science fiction, drama, thriller – but its beauty comes from all those elements working in concert. The film will confound many, as it should. But for patient, mature moviegoers, it’s not to be missed.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Classic)

Release Date: April 4, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: A24
Director: Jonathan Glazer
Screenwriter: Jonathan Glazer, Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
MPAA Rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)