Scarlett Johansson was given the best role of her career so far in Spike Jonze’s “Her,” a film in which she was off camera the entire running time. Where that performance solely revolved around her voice, Johansson’s performance in “Under the Skin” primarily revolves around her body. Johansson rarely speaks in this science fiction indie from Jonathan Glazer, conveying everything through nonverbal communication. Both of these stunning performances are true testaments to what a varied actress Miss Scarlett has evolved into. Her scene stealing work in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is also a nice bonus to her recent track record.
Johansson plays a nameless alien who arrives in Scotland, assumes the appearance of a human and starts abducting random men on the streets. At least that’s how the synopsis on IMDb describes the plot. Unless you’ve read the book by Michael Faber or researched the film beforehand, you’ll likely be completely lost watching “Under the Skin.” The movie unapologetically leaves its audience in the dark, never revealing Johansson’s origins, motivations, or internal thoughts. “Under the Skin” uses the medium of film to its full advantage, always showing and never telling.
A movie like this will surely divide people, seeing how there isn’t a ton to the story. But “Under the Skin” isn’t really about narrative or dialogue. Much like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Tree of Life,” or the more surreal works of David Lynch, the film is all about having an experience. For me, the experience of “Under the Skin” was both confusing and frustrating, but ultimately fascinating and occasionally beautiful.
Every shot in the film is a visual treat, courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Landin. On a limited budget, the production directors create some unforgettable gothic imagery as Johansson lures tempted men into her dark, unspecified lair. Aside from Johansson, the film’s most hypnotic presence is Mica Levi’s heart pounding musical score that often sounds like the inside of Darth Vader’s helmet. In a practically dialogue-free script, the music acts as a constant lingering presence, adding atmosphere to every scene.
As great as the film looks, Johansson is the real reason “Under the Skin” works. Johansson flawlessly conveys the film’s central themes of finding one’s personal identity, sexual identity, and identity in general.
At least I believe those are the central themes, as the film never makes anything clear.
That’s one of the great things about “Under the Skin,” though. It lets you decide what to feel rather than telling you what you should feel. Even if it proves too vague and art housey for some, Johansson’s performance, not to mention her hourglass figure, is definitely something to be admired.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.