Imagine a wolf making a documentary about rabbits. The little, scurrying things will seem foreign and strange and uselessly busy. Every once in a while, the wolf gets peckish and nabs one of its film subjects for lunch. This is how Under the Skin introduces itself, as a monumental psychological horror movie that reflects the bleak, harsh landscapes of the Scottish cities and countryside in which it takes place.
The predator we follow, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a human-looking alien preying upon the damaged and homeless in Scotland. We’re told she’s an alien in a very esoteric way, but you’ll probably have it figured out by the time she’s seducing and digesting men.
Species this isn’t, however. There are no sex scenes in these seductions – plenty of equal-opportunity nudity, but no sex scenes. Instead, the seduction takes place in a sort of nothingness. It’s haunting and beautiful and visually very clever. And the digestion? It’s one of the great moments of horror filmmaking.
The visuals here can utterly command your attention. The first half, as Johansson’s predator is on the hunt, is dominated by bright figures centered in dark surroundings. It’s a binary relationship – predator, prey, nothing more. When she’s on the prowl, Under the Skin reflects Scotland’s surging visual art movement – one which recycles liberally from other popular media. Our predator is selective – no one with a family or loved one will suffer, only loners no one will miss. As she trawls the streets of Edinburgh for potential victims, we spy on her conversations as if following Dominic Monaghan or Jeremy Wade seeking out interviews from aboriginal locals, or we watch from the back of her nondescript white van as if we’re the turret camera atop a jeep waiting for some stalking creature to give chase to the herd.
The second half of the film is altogether different, and concerns our predator’s growing empathy and identification with humans. She begins to learn the limits and capacities of her body. Images now brim at their edges with light and color, yet are anchored in the middle by dark, underlit figures. It redirects our focus toward the edges of the frame, toward the possibility of what’s just out of sight, the unknown still obscured. Where we once cut relatively quickly from one shot to the next – while Johansson’s alien was on the prowl – we now linger even after characters leave the shot so we can appreciate the sound of the wind or the complex geometry of crisscrossing branches. The wolf goes native, starts wanting to play with the rabbits.
There’s also a spooky moment of inverting rape culture here. Scarlett Johansson’s nameless alien gets very unnerving theme music early on, whenever she preys upon a man. When it hits, you straighten up, your fingers grip the armrests. The score by Mica Levi is superb – the best of the year so far. As the predator identifies more and more with humans, she adopts our rhythms, our weaknesses. These moments are without music, but that unnerving theme does return once more. It becomes someone else’s theme later on, when roles of predator and prey are reversed. It’s a shocking auditory moment, a double-take for the ears that sends a lump straight to your throat.
It’s vicious, but played as academic and unfeeling as her own earlier predations. It makes you realize you’ve spent ninety minutes trying to inhabit the altogether alien sociopathy of a sexual predator. It gives you a window into a psyche it ought to be utterly impossible to give us access to. In that single achievement, this may be one of the most challenging and important films I’ve seen in my life. It’s terrifying on a whole different scale. I can’t recall having seen a piece of art do what Under the Skin does.
As an adaptation of the Michel Faber novel of the same name, this is…altogether something else. I love the Faber novel, but gone are the corporate politics and alien foodie-isms. This is a sleeker beast with a different cross to bear, yet there’s a consciousness to the rhythm of each sequence, an offhand attitude to narrative, and a lingering in the most evocative moments of its cinematography that feels just like Faber’s guarded and relentless concision of speech.
It’s worth noting I saw Under the Skin with two friends – an actor who enjoys classic cinema and a filmmaker whose bread and butter are action-comedies. Two ends of the spectrum, and neither one enjoyed it much, criticizing its lack of storytelling fundamentals and the molasses-pace of its second half. I was taken aback by how much they didn’t like it, but their criticisms are accurate. As a cogent story, Under the Skin requires a lot of work on the part of the audience. It’s that work on our part, that Pavlovian training we have as viewers to try as hard as we can to identify with our protagonist, that gives the story’s later inversion its power, however.
Under the Skin is not just a weird film or an art horror piece, it’s downright, unabashed experimental filmmaking, and that’s divisive. It’s absolutely not for everyone. For the right someone, though, it’s as brutal a shock to the system as storytelling in any form can achieve.