If you were to ask me to name my favorite actor, I’d say Scarlett Johansson. I’ve seen almost every movie she’s been in, cringing at the lows (IRON MAN 2, THE BLACK DAHLIA) and relishing the highs (MATCH POINT, LOST IN TRANSLATION). She’s been in a number of great films in her career like VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA, THE PRESTIGE, THE HORSE WHISPERER, GHOST WORLD and GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING.
But the current phase of her career is absolutely golden. Starting in 2012 with THE AVENGERS, she has chosen some solid film roles, all of them showing her range. With HITCHCOCK, DON JON, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, CHEF, HER and UNDER THE SKIN, Johansson has acted in so many different genres in such a short period of time. Basically, it’s an exciting time to be a Scarlett Johansson fan.
UNDER THE SKIN is probably the weirdest of her films (including EIGHT-LEGGED FREAKS). It’s a sci-fi horror mixed with a character study. There is almost no dialogue, zero plot exposition, bizarre imagery, graphic nudity, a piercing score and at the center, Esquire’s only twice-named Sexiest Woman Alive. I don’t think there’s ever been a movie like UNDER THE SKIN, and I really doubt another one could be made.
Johansson plays a nameless alien, who takes on the skin of a human woman and drives around in a van. She asks random men for directions and if they’re alone, she offers a ride with an implicit offer of sex. She takes them back to her place and…well, I’m still not exactly sure what happens, but it’s weird.
Scarlett Johansson puts in work unlike anything she’s ever done. She is wonderfully wooden and cautious. She uses her body language to convey her uneasiness in her surroundings. She’s an observant alien, and we see the world through her uncompromising and watchful gaze. Her near mute performance lacks that screen siren sexiness she usually displays. Even when her character is supposed to be seductive, there’s a stilted quality. Her character plays at seduction the way she thinks humans seduce each other. It’s not real, it’s not erotic, it’s not Scarlett Johansson the way most people think of her.
To be honest, I think Johansson is still struggling to shed the sex symbol status, and this movie plays with the media perception of Johansson. The alien seduces men and, yes, even gets naked in her human form. The film’s eerie tone, however, robs these moments of the titillation people might expect. The minimal dialogue also deprives the audience of one of Johansson’s most notable qualities: her awesome, 1940s femme fatale voice. In a fun way, UNDER THE SKIN plays like the weird Goth sister of the sci-fi romance, HER in which Johansson plays Samantha, an artificially intelligent operating system who develops her own humanity to the point that she surpasses actual humans. Johansson only needed her voice to be sexy, charming, needy, clingy, knowledgeable, and curious.
While these two films may not share a lot thematically, UNDER THE SKIN and HER work well together to help redefine Johansson as actress and movie star. They show that, despite what conceptions the public, the media, even her fans, might have about her, she remains in control of her voice, her body and her career. She can easily discard her most famous attributes and still deliver unique, complicated and terrific performances.
The premise of UNDER THE SKIN could have been really campy and sensational, especially with a mainstream actress attached to the project. However, director Jonathan Glazer (whose last film BIRTH was a quiet masterpiece a decade ago) has loftier goals in mind. Under his direction, the film takes a more art house approach to the premise, forgoing sensationalism for something a little more insightful. His film is interested in looking at humanity through alien eyes. Glazer keenly observes human life and its isolating and grotesque qualities. The mundane activities of human beings—shopping, eating at restaurants, clubbing—are made strange under Glazer’s camera. The film employs an almost documentary approach for a majority of the film. It’s as if we’re watching an Animal Planet special but we are the animals observed.
Between scenes of static observation, the alien lures unsuspecting men into her van. Some are just looking for a quick score; some are just relieved to be taken out of their loneliness. Then, she has a meeting with a young man with neurofibromatosis, a disorder that has severely disfigured his body. This encounter with a person equally isolated and lost veers the alien away from her mission towards a journey of self-discovery.
The final act of the movie really becomes an unsettling blend of tense horror and quiet beauty. I’m not sure what it means exactly. Some might see it as the alien getting a taste of her own cruelty towards humans. Or maybe as the alien tries to acclimate to life on Earth, she realizes she has to suffer the violence that comes with it.
Scarlett Johansson is one of the few actresses who could pull off something like this. She’s mainstream enough to anchor such a movie but has enough indie cred not to look ridiculous. Admittedly, UNDER THE SKIN can be pretty frustrating at times because it withholds many of the narrative devices moviegoers sometimes crave. It isn’t an easy movie to watch and with the wrong mood it can probably seem laughable. I do think it is worth seeing once, just for the experience of seeing something totally out there and just plain weird.