Review: Scarlett Johansson is riveting in Jonathan Glazer’s hypnotic ‘Under The Skin’

The first real film festival I ever attended was Sundance in 2001. I remember one of the mornings we were there, we had to get up earlier than normal to drive the hour to Park City so we could then stand in line for over an hour just on the off chance that maybe we could make it in to see a screening at 8:30 in the morning. It turned out to be well worth it, though, when we got to see the first screening of Jonathan Glazer’s “Sexy Beast,” which seemed to make good on the promise Glazer had shown as a filmmaker when making amazing music videos.

That was twelve years ago, and we’re just now seeing Glazer’s third film as a director. He seems to be one of those guys who would rather focus on something he loves than just make as many films as possible, and as a result, when he does release a new film, you can count on it being something that he sincerely means as an artist. He doesn’t seem remotely interested in courting commercial favor, which must drive the money guys crazy, but as long as he can find people who are willing to pay for his dark and haunting visions, I’ll happily line up to see them.

“Under The Skin” took me a few days to fully digest, and it was one of the few films I didn’t run back to immediately write about during the Toronto Film Festival. I’m glad, too, because I’m not sure what review I would have given the film the moment I walked out. The longer I’ve chewed on it, the more I am impressed by what Glazer did. Fair warning, though… when I use the word “hypnotic” to describe the film, I’m being precise. There is something about the rhythm of the filmmaking, the score by Mica Levi, the photography by Daniel Landin that all works together to cast a powerful spell. During our mid-day screening at Toronto, I watched people around me nodding off, doing that sudden head-bob thing where they would start awake again, and this is a film that features full-frontal nudity from Scarlett Johansson, so that’s sort of amazing. The film makes Nicolas Roeg’s “The Man Who Fell To Earth” look like “Independence Day” in terms of pace and oblique storytelling, but it would also make a fascinating companion piece to Roeg’s movie. Both films deal with extraterrestrial visitors sent to Earth to harvest very specific resources, but unless you read Michel Farber’s novel that Glazer’s film is based on, you would never know the specifics of what you’re watching in the film.

Instead, Glazer has stripped the narrative bare, and what he’s created is something far more meditative and internal than I would have expected. He shot the film using non-actors who were unaware they were being filmed, all reacting to Johansson’s efforts to get them to climb into her car. The unforgiving landscape of northern Scotland makes a striking backdrop, and the way the film unfolds, there is a repetition, a cycle that we’re watching play out over and over, and Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell have done their best to remove anything that might offer you an easy answer about what you’re seeing.

As a result, it all ends up feeling like a nightmare. There are mysterious figures on motorcycles who follow up whenever Johansson finishes with one of the men she picks up, and there’s one harrowing sequence on a beach involving a baby that I may never fully shake. Because Glazer doesn’t offer you answers, it becomes an exercise in tension. There’s a moment where something happens and Johansson suddenly shifts gears, and we can tell she’s thrown off the system, even if we don’t fully understand the stakes or the consequences.

It is a gorgeous film, full of quiet beautiful images, and even at its ugliest, I couldn’t look away. Beyond that, I keep flashing on images from the movie at random moments, and I suspect I’ll need to see it a few more times to really get a handle on it. “Under The Skin” is one of the most difficult films I’ve seen this year, and I love the challenge it poses for viewers. Here’s hoping Glazer continues to follow his own very personal muse, wherever it might lead him.

“Under The Skin” doesn’t have a US release date yet, but you should get a chance to see it sometime in 2014.