Directed by Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Under the Skin is a psychological science-fiction art film about an inhuman predator, played by Scarlett Johansson, which hunts its prey on the streets of Glasgow. With the offer of a lift, Johansson’s silky English accent and façade of a 1970s prostitute lures the unsuspecting men (literally – they were not actors) into her white van, and seduces them, before leading them into her lair. At this point the film switches from hidden-camera realism to a surreal, black, hallucinatory nightmare: an unsettling motif plays as a naked man follows Johansson, mesmerised by her creepy allure, before disappearing into a black, viscous lake. This whole scene is at once startling, amusing and disturbing and would have been much more effective had we only witnessed it once; in fact, 20 minutes into the film the viewer realises with horror that this is the film: Johansson picks up a man, has an awkward (real) conversation with him, then lures him into her freaky world where he disappears into black soup: rinse and repeat.
While there is some degree of character development as the protagonist learns to be more human, and perhaps to love, this is never fully explored, and as such, the audience has little investment in her. The only other character is a man who seems to enjoy speeding on a motorcycle; he seems to be working with the protagonist, perhaps clearing up her mess, but his narrative amounts to nothing.
Perhaps what is most disturbing about Under the Skin is its sense of amorality: to mirror the eyes of the inhuman protagonist, the audience views this world through an uncaring lens, utterly indifferent to the human drama, meaning that we are just as complicit as the protagonist. This is a clever technique, but inevitably distances the viewer from being involved in the narrative.
While the cinematography is strong and some scenes are imaginative and complimented by an unsettling soundscape, the film lacks the substance necessary to make it rewarding, or even entertaining. Whether or not the title is an intentional double entendre, the film really does get ‘under your skin’, but not in any positive way: the lack of insight into why she these men are being hunted and why, well, everything (!) is frustrating and leaves a bitter taste, particularly in such a dark film. Of course it is never good to spoon-feed your audience, but in Under the Skin there is no spoon: just like the foolish Glaswegians, the audience is left sinking into the murky depths, wondering if it was worth it just to see Scarlett Johansson in the buff.