Solely by casting her in “Under the Skin,” director Jonathan Glazer challenges his audience to see Scarlett Johansson in an unusual way. His decision is a resounding success story, but few actresses with Johansson’s kind of unbelievable beauty could play the role of Laura as well. The actress accepts the film’s leading (only) credited role — one that mutes her voice, which she received so much critical acclaim for as Samantha in “Her.” In turn, Glazer’s film, based on the novel by Michael Faber, invites her to use her eyes, lips and related assets to transform into Laura, an alien seductress who lures lonely men off the streets of Scotland, into her van and to the death trap waiting in her darkened cottage.
As also in “Don Jon,” Johansson masters the use of her body expertly, making her movements naturally as opposed to calculated. Her ability to do so takes away the possibility of distraction, as other science fiction thrillers have surrendered to with steamy leading ladies. “Under the Skin” is taken as seriously as Glazer desired because Johansson figures out her character and doesn’t succumb to the pressure of the film’s limitations. She doesn’t have co-stars to work alongside or a big setting to explore. Laura’s either quietly in her van or stripping down in her cottage. In both spaces, her acting is as original as ever.
We first see Johansson, fully nude, in a white, blindingly bright space, collecting the clothes off of another, who’s dead. It’s as if Laura was dropped in this room to gather temporary clothes before going out on the night to collect loners, who surely don’t have acquaintances who will know they’re missing. The long, slow pick-up sequence early in Glazer’s film, showing Laura’s practically programmed trial-and-error period, hints at her robotic state, but she will change.
“Under the Skin” is Laura’s story of self discovery, with a tragic ending and a lot to say about sex and gender in society. Complete strangers lust for Laura, as normal people would for Johansson, even though she is noticeably off in some way. Laura doesn’t speak much, but when she does, luring strangers by asking for directions, her questions come off like a checklist. She’s subtly impatient, often interrupting answers. However, this alien seems to change with each kill, like the more people she takes, the more human she becomes. Laura begins to feel, takes an interest in her own body, hungers for food and sex — all things the alien behind her blank stare was immune to, until she saw herself in a mirror. Her tragedy soon unravels. She can’t escape herself.
Laura realizes she isn’t built like a real woman, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes. About to have sex for the first time, in a dim home with a strange man, there seems to be a struggle with getting things where they need to go. She sits up in an instant, slides to the edge of the bed, snatches a small lamp and examines herself to find disappointing results.
This desire for reality is quickly stripped from her by a horny trucker, attempting to sexually assault her at a quiet cabin, a place of solace, in the vast woods of Scotland. Laura’s newfound vulnerability made her susceptible to the attack.
Glazer’s direction gives Johansson quite an environment to work in, systematically using wide-angled shots and close-ups in a pattern. The film’s music, a creepy yet unimposing score, is done by Mica Levi. “Under the Skin” is practically a silent film. Rightfully, Levi’s music sets the pace and mood of the film. Johansson isn’t in a hurry. The film is better for it.
“Under the Skin”: ★★★1/2