Under the Skin is a strange film that will likely appeal more to critics than to the wider viewing public. To many, this is the ultimate condemnation, but consider what it is that critics do: they watch films for a living. They are in the seen-it-all business, so when a film comes along that manages to surprise these jaded journeymen, it is worth a second look.
Scarlett Johansson plays an unnamed extra-terrestrial who roams the streets of Glasgow in a white panel van preying on unsuspecting men who are keen to get a leg over with her. She collaborates with an unnamed motorcyclist (played by motorcycle racer Jeremy McWilliams) who zips expertly around a perpetually rainy Scotland mopping up after her.
What is unique about Under the Skin is how utterly banal the scenes of Johansson driving along in her van chatting up her prey are. She flirts and asks them where they work, if they live alone, prodding gently to see if anyone will miss them if she takes them. She is pretty and charming, but dead-eyed on a closer look. Whenever her disguise begins to slip, her pupils dilate and threaten to obscure the irises. Those moments when her collaborator stares into her eyes as if willing her pupils back into line capture the tone of the film perfectly — it is often silent, intense, and subtly sinister.
We don’t know what Johansson is, or exactly why she and the motorcyclist are harvesting these men, but, more importantly, we have no idea where the story is going. Under the Skin takes played-out tropes — alien predators and creepy serial killers in painters’ vans — and turns them on their heads. We have absolutely no idea what is going to happen next, and it is deeply unsettling.
As the film goes on without springing any of the expected alien hunter plot devices at us, the stranger it becomes. There is no mother ship, no secret plans for world domination. We are stuck with the lady in the van and the man on the motorcycle.
Under the Skin film showed me just how much narrative film (even that which purports to shock) is about comfort. The familiar is used as bait, a trap to lull us into being surprised by the twist. Under the Skin had me on the edge of my seat only occasionally, but it had me shifting in unease for its entire running time and ready to watch it again as soon as the shocking ending rolled into the end credits, because I had never seen anything else quite like it.