A mysterious young woman drives a van along the Scottish Highlands picking up men. She almost preys on these unassuming blokes, ostensibly for sexual encounters. The conversation always begins with a flirtatious air, an exchange whereby the seductress probes into their lives. Where are you going? Do you have a family? Are you single? A hitchhiker, a clubgoer, a surfer, each male selected is unattached and alone, lured into her van by their own choice where she takes them back to her place. What has the beginnings of an erotic thriller, a woman who adopts a passive demeanor for predatory purposes, transforms into something much different – a surprising chronicle that draws on horror, thriller and sci-fi.
This is an atmospheric mood piece. The narrative drifts at a meditative pace. The woman’s behavior is presented as a series of repetitive actions. The script meanders often without words. There is no explanation, no back-story and little dialogue. The woman rarely talks except in her introductions to the men she meets on the streets of Scotland. I’m told these conversations were unscripted with non-professional actors. An early shot shows the woman shopping, picking out clothes to wear in a store. Hidden cameras were used to film with the locals unaware until after the scene was finished. They certainly have a realistic feel. At times, the visuals are so static and the action so trance-inducing, the picture teeters on the brink of monotony. Forgive me for being vague, but the less details you know, the better. I walked into the theater knowing absolutely nothing other than that Scarlet Johansson was the star. My advice, don’t read any reviews (other than this one). Allow the surprising developments to be discovered as you watch with an unspoiled perspective.
The story isn’t challenging to follow but it does challenge the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer initially made a name for himself in music videos, notably with Jamiroquai‘s “Virtual Insanity” which won the 1996 MTV Video of the Year award. Glazer isn’t a prolific director with only 3 full length features to his credit. These include both the widely praised Sexy Beast (2000) and the widely panned Birth (2004). The latter was disturbing but in an audacious way. I quite enjoyed its creepiness which shares stylistic similarities and themes with Under the Skin. The work of director Nicolas Roeg is an obvious influence. First-time UK composer Mica Levi’s experimental music score brilliantly adds to the growing tension. The whole production defies convention. Jonathan Glazer is a master craftsman when it comes to assembling a work of art.
There is a quiet beauty in telling a languid story that merely relies on the humanity of real life. Scarlett Johansson disguised in a short wig of jet black hair and pale skin sort of physically recalls silent film star Pola Negri but with a blank slate personality that makes her character oddly unsettling. For most of the muted solitude of the tale, we the audience must infer what the woman is thinking. The events are deceptively spare but in reality a lot of themes are addressed. It’s a meditation that comes to a head when our protagonist ultimately suffers an existential crisis of sorts. The drama explores human emotion in the interactions regarding an enigmatic seducer of various men. Her scenes with actor Adam Pearson are particularly memorable. As she interacts with each individual, their personalities expose aspects of the human condition. In doing so, the picture brilliantly demonstrates the qualities that make human beings so wonderful and what also makes them monsters.