Review: Johansson invites us into a baffling dream
To say that a movie feels like a dream is not automatically a positive statement. It all depends on the dream.
Some dreams, for example, make sense, at least partly, and others are just baffling. Some are compelling, others tedious. Some move quickly, and others feel like they’re never going to end.
Alas, Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” begins with a lot of the positive attributes mentioned above, but seems to settle into the negative ones as time goes on. It may feel like a dream, but it eventually feels like one you’re sorta ready to wake up from.
However — and this is a significant “however” — the film stars Scarlett Johansson. And who among us would not seek to welcome Ms. Johansson into our dreams, or share hers?
Johansson’s performance isn’t simply the best thing about the movie, it’s the movie’s raison d’etre. And this charismatic actress, who’s worth watching no matter what she does, delivers a thoughtful, sometimes even mesmerizing turn as, yes, an alien preying on human males in Glasgow, Scotland.
Given that plotline, it may sound funny for us to complain here that what’s lacking in the film, loosely based on a novel by Michael Faber, is a sense of motivation for Johansson’s character. After all, you might say, she’s an alien who landed in Scotland! You’re asking for a motive? But there’s so little said here about what the character is doing, and more importantly why, that it gets ever more frustrating as the minutes roll by.
In fact, there’s precious little dialogue at all. Glazer, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay (with Walter Campbell), apparently jettisoned pages of it when he decided upon a unique method of filmmaking: He placed his star, almost unrecognizable in a cheap-looking black wig and bright red lipstick, incognito on the dark streets of Glasgow and filmed what happened, using hidden cameras.
Much of the time, Johansson is driving a big white van, speaking in a British accent and trying to lure men into her car. At other times she’s in a nightclub, or stumbling and falling on a street, or getting swept up in a crowd of female revelers. It’s fascinating to watch these “Candid Camera”-style encounters with people who had no idea they were in a movie. But then again, it takes you out of the narrative. You’re thinking, “Wow, that guy didn’t recognize ScarJo?” instead of what’s actually happening in the story.
Oh yes, the story. We meet our protagonist as she’s just arriving on Earth (or so we assume — none of this is very explicit.). She undresses (there’s a lot of that here, which will not hurt the box office prospects) and dons the clothes of a dead woman, then sets out to hunt her prey. She brings the men home, and when they disrobe, she leads them across a pond of inky liquid, into which they quickly sink.
In the novel, it was much clearer what this comely extra-terrestrial was doing to the men, and why she wanted them. Here, all we know is that she’s doing something bad, and has no human feeling (that lack of feeling is most shockingly portrayed in a scene that involves a couple with a baby. Be forewarned.)
But gradually, this alien starts to develop a sense of self — or humanity. This journey introduces her to both the best and the worst humans — well, human men — have to offer.
There are some arresting visuals here — a moment where Johansson simply stands alone in the night fog is one of them — and a creepily effective score by Mica Levi. But the film loses steam about midway through, blunting the impact of its rather stunning end. When you wake up from this odd dream, you may wonder what the point was. It’s probably there, but it’s lost in that dark fog.
“Under the Skin,” an A24 Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language.” Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.