Scarlett Johansson transfixes as an alien seductress in filmmaker Jonathan Glazer’s odd, experimental and captivating “Under the Skin.” Like the men her siren character leads to her lair, the viewer is willing to follow Johansson – gorgeous in a highly flattering dark wig – anywhere during the course of the movie.
Contrasting her recent role as a disembodied voice in the Oscar-nominated “Her,” Johansson hardly speaks in “Skin,” and her face and body are everywhere, with Glazer underscoring the alien’s appeal through lingering shots of Johansson clothed and unclothed. It’s Johansson’s best performance in years.
To imply Johansson should be quiet and rely on her looks is offensive. But hear me out.
Johansson, like Jennifer Lawrence after her, was recognized at a young age for her dewy beauty and specialness and subsequently thrust into roles beyond her years. It happened first with “Lost in Translation,” in which the teenage actress played a married woman in her 20s.
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While Lawrence has pulled off characters too old for her (in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”), Johansson has struggled to make hers credible. “Translation” succeeded because of Bill Murray and the dreamy way Sofia Coppola photographed Johansson, not because of Johansson, winsome but green. Woody Allen overlooked this when he later made Johansson his muse, asking her to assume a sophistication she only sometimes could impart.
Johansson tried to sell her too-mature roles through posturing, and her throaty voice, and often failed. She could not convince as a libertine in Allen’s “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” for instance, because Allen put Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz in the same frame, and she looked callow by comparison.
Sophisticated is not Johansson’s jam. She’s best when vulnerable, and allowed to use her youth – she’s still only 29 – in her favor. She did this in Allen’s “Match Point,” in which she moved from sexpot to tragic figure, and does it in “Skin,” in which she taps her more innocent qualities. And with her voice mostly removed from the equation, she uses her expressive eyes to powerful effect.
Johansson’s alien-in-human-form roams Scotland looking for men to serve her devious aims. Yet there’s no menace or guile in the performance, or any artifice beyond that of her character’s ruse to snag victims.
In the few scenes in which she has dialogue, Johansson uses a posh, convincing British accent the alien adopted to increase her attractiveness to the working-class Scottish men she lures into her van. The alien is smooth as she asks for directions and whether the men live alone. But the moment things go off script, so does the alien, with the fear in Johansson’s eyes informing us this creature is just a pawn in a larger game.
Performance and film are inextricable as Johansson and Glazer (“Sexy Beast,” “Birth”) make a killer sympathetic. Glazer’s arresting visuals highlight Johansson’s beauty and open demeanor, which in turn hold our attention as Glazer deliberately rolls out the story (from a novel by Michael Faber), or what little there is of it.
“Skin” always is moving, but slowly, thoughtfully, positioning both Glazer’s camera and the alien as observers. Over-the-shoulder shots follow the alien through a crowded mall, the normalcy of which highlights her otherworldliness.
As the alien tools through rainy streets seeking prey, the camera work inside the van is so fluid it puts you in the passenger seat. Just as we grow accustomed to such Earth-bound moments, Glazer will drop a doozy of a surreal scene, his audacity evoking that of Ken Russell and Nicolas Roeg, fellow Brits unafraid of visual experiment or a bit of nudity.
“Sexy Beast” offered a snazzy star turn by Ben Kingsley as a criminal, and “Birth,” in which a woman (Nicole Kidman) imagines a kid as her husband reincarnated, put forth interesting ideas about the nature of a soul. But Glazer’s past films will not prepare you for “Skin’s” adventurousness.
Glazer takes his camera practically inside Johansson’s eyeball but also moves back far enough for a shot of her looking tiny while walking in the Scottish countryside.
People enter rundown apartment buildings and then disappear into inky black pools in scenes obviously shot on a sound stage. Glazer does not seem to seek visual continuity, yet he earns viewers’ consistent fascination.
Glazer’s use of sound impresses almost as much. Composer Mica Levi’s electronic drum beats and screeching strings accompany the alien on her hunts, the sounds surging and fading depending on the intensity of a moment.
The music – and all audible elements – stop for a scene in which Glazer shows us exactly what the alien is up to. The silence immerses yet unnerves.
We get zero backstory, and little front story beside the alien’s mission to find men for purposes I will not reveal. The alien first appears nude before a white, illuminated backdrop that evokes an an egg incubator, as if just hatched.
Johansson’s nudity, as well as the movie’s male nudity, might shock some. But it usually happens during scenes more clinical than sexy, or in Johansson’s case, moments suggesting delayed self-discovery. Johansson’s look of confusion in these scenes is heartbreaking, and makes you wonder what the alien was told about life on Earth beyond what she needed to know to hook men.
Even at her most single-minded, the alien shows more emotional colors than the job of seduction requires. Thus, “Skin” challenges the idea of sexuality as the ultimate female power; at the same time it provides plentiful Johansson nude shots to Internet GIF image makers.
The film’s greater message is hard to ascertain, because Glazer opens the story’s key developments to interpretation. Yet the takeaways still are clear: Johansson can thrive under the right circumstances, and Glazer ranks among today’s most exciting filmmakers.