Under the Skin is one of those movies lots of people will be afraid to say they don't like. But they will be more afraid of saying they don't get it. The trouble is, there's just not that much to get.
Kubrickian in tone and complemented by one of the best, most ethereal musical scores in a long time, Under the Skin just doesn't have enough story to make you wait so long to find out what that story really is. You may guess, of course, and eventually, you'll be so put out by the dead ends the film presents that you're destined to try, but does that make a film better or worse? Should it be so exasperating that you try to make up your own ending because the movie refuses, at every turn, to let you in on its secrets?
That's the debate Under the Skin sparks, so ultimately, your answer to the preceding questions will tell you everything you need to know. It's well made, it's mysterious, and Scarlett Johansson is coolly effective, as she usually is when she's motivated to do good work.
Just the facts: A lone motorcycle rider picks up the corpse of a young female in the woods and brings it back to what appears to be a kind of laboratory inside a house in Scotland. Another woman (Johansson) strips the corpse and takes its clothes, then hops in a van and trolls the streets for single men. She cuts off the conversation if the man is on his way to meet friends or has a family. On the occasions when they are single, she offers the men rides and they accept. She drives them back to her house, where clothes fly off and the men disappear into what looks to be some sort of heavy gel located in the floor.
That's how it goes for about an hour. And that's when your mind tries to fill in the gaps. Maybe she's an alien. Maybe she's a serial killer. Maybe she's a robot. Hey—she could be a combination of all three, a kind of Terminatrix sent from the future to kill young Scotsmen for apparently no reason whatsoever. You'll find out in due time what's really at play here, but Under the Skin doesn't want you to know more than you have to. There's almost no dialogue outside of the pickup lines, and the motorcycle rider and the woman never communicate at all, so there are no aces falling out of director Jonathan Glazer's deck.
For those familiar with his résumé, it should not be a surprise that Glazer has made another challenging film. His best is Sexy Beast, with its deliciously nasty supporting turn by Ben Kingsley as a mob enforcer. Next, Glazer brought us Birth, in which Nicole Kidman is set to marry a man whose 10-year-old son claims to be the reincarnation of her first husband. Things get über-creepy in that one.
If nothing else, Under the Skin reaffirms that Glazer would get pretty restless churning out studio pictures. It wouldn't require his aesthetic approach to make this film, so simplistic is its story and storytelling, but it's rewarding that he's made it such a handsome piece of work. The scenic cinematography, coupled with the weird, sanitary environment where those nude sacrifices happen, give Under the Skin more to examine than just a plot that could fit on the head of a pin.
Johansson is in almost every scene, and while nobody would expect a particularly emotive performance from her, it fits the bill for this character. We do see her begin to question either what she's doing or why she's doing it, which eventually launches us into the climactic moments of the film, but she's primarily portraying a siren here, charming men the way she usually does.
The music, by 26-year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist Mica Levi, will absolutely haunt you. It's rare that a score is this central to the emotional weight of a film, and while it's not a constant presence, it really captures the mysterious nature and dread of the action.
That's why it's so unfortunate that the end product simply doesn't add up to much. Again, it's hard not to try your hand at guessing where it's all going; Glazer gives you no reason not to and no information to keep your mind occupied. By the time you get there, no matter what you thought it was going to be, you'll wonder if it required so much secrecy. Perhaps you'll find some deeper meaning, though it's not apparent any was intended.