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‘Under the Skin’: Beauty Below the Surface

One of the most astonishingly assured directorial debuts of the early 21st century was Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast, a stylishly vicious crime thriller that erased any chance of Ben Kingsley being typecast as a Gandhi figure.

Sexy Beast was a ramped-up, hyper-verbal explosion of Britishisms and its singular vulgar patois, which made Glazer’s sophomore effort so surprising: Birth, a lamentably under-seen drama featuring a shattering performance by Nicole Kidman, contained relatively little dialogue, instead creating an atmosphere of bizarre, creeping dread by way of stately, meticulously controlled images and pristine sound design. The film’s borderline genre between psychological horror and domestic melodrama, and Glazer’s clear commitment to rigorously austere composition and carefully centered framing, suggested he might be this generation’s most likely standard-bearer of the legacies of Roman Polanski and Stanley Kubrick.

Under the Skin, Glazer’s third film, offers new evidence of that promise, even if it doesn’t entirely deliver on it. As a speculative piece of fantasy and warily somber mood piece, this erotically charged thriller recalls Philip K. Dick, but in its finely calibrated formalism and vivid atmospherics, it’s pure Glazer.

The story of Under the Skin — which has been adapted from a novel by Michel Faber — doesn’t amount to all that much. But, true to its title and thanks to Glazer’s superb control and a mesmerizing performance by Scarlett Johansson, this creepy-cool exercise possesses a sinuous, insinuating power to burrow into the viewer’s consciousness and make itself felt for days on end.

Felicitously enough, Johansson is already in theaters as the Marvel action heroine Black Widow; her character in Under the Skin could be called the same thing, albeit of an intergalactic provenance. After a prologue involving mysterious spheres, orbs and a whispered soundtrack of Johansson apparently practicing English phonetics, the film cuts to a lonely road in Scotland, where a leather-clad motorcyclist retrieves a female body from an isolated ditch.

What this has to do with Johansson will all be made clear in Under the Skin, which will spend most of its time in the Scottish countryside, filmed by Glazer to maximize its inherently supernatural beauty; when Johansson’s character — let’s call her the Girl Who Fell to Earth — encounters a succession of local men in her generic-looking white van, the local accents begin to sound like their own alien tongue.

As the ultimate fembot-fatale, Johansson is deceptively good in a role that demands sparkly, seductive animation one moment and dispassionate blankness the next. Just what her character is doing, and how that will or will not change her, provides the bare bones of a narrative that, while thin, can still be exploited for maximum aesthetic and even intellectual impact.

With long, quiet takes in which he simply observes Johansson wordlessly taking in the world around her, Glazer infuses the everyday modern world with a surpassing sense of strangeness and doom. Even more fascinating is an emotional journey on the part of a heroine whose indifference to such feelings as pain, fear and empathy can be callous (witness an excruciating scene on a windswept beach) but, in another context, allows her to be non-judgmental of even the most dramatic human flaws. That encounter will propel the otherwise one-note plot of Under the Skin in a surprising and much more thoughtful direction.

Once Under the Skin reaches its surprisingly affecting conclusion, it feels less like a cinematic novel than a well-executed short story. Viewers are likely to emerge from the film thinking, “More, please,” in the best sense of that phrase. It’s taken almost 10 years for Glazer to get from Birth to Under the Skin ; with luck, he’ll be back sooner with his next film. Here’s a director with vision, discipline and clear command of the medium who, with the right scripts, is clearly primed to do great things.