When I stepped into a theatre to see Under the Skin with a friend, I knew little about it. All I knew was that it had been a movie that I had heard praise of from almost every film critic I listen to. I didn’t even know that it was a horror movie until my friend told me it was. I had no inkling what a strange and horrific experience I was about to get.
I really don’t want to tell you much about the plot, because I think it is best to be in the dark for this movie. All I will say is that Scarlett Johansson plays an alien killer who is sent to earth to entrap prey with her sexual wiles. The movie is more than just its plot. It is about this alien’s inability to connect with anything, let alone with another human being. She is nothing more than a vessel or a tool that is manipulated by the strange man on the motorcycle. Only when she gets a shock to the system (not a literal shock… I will say no more) does she realize that there is such a thing as emotion or being alive.
Scarlett Johansson is playing against a huge order. She is literally the only character driving the story forward and yet she must remain as emotionless as possible. She has little dialogue and so most of her acting is apparent through her facial expressions and non-verbal gestures. At first I thought it was just a bunch of her staring at things, but as the days went on and I thought about this movie more (It’s not an easy movie to get out of your head), I realized that her performance was a study in subtilty. She was able to captivate me and make me wonder what is behind those strangely soulful eyes even when she was committing heinous crimes. At one moment she can be in awe of someone grabbing her arm and pulling her into a group of partyers on the way to a club and the next she can be coyly self-assured in the seduction of an unsuspecting man. The performance is oddly dynamic.
As I was watching this movie, I couldn’t help but think about Meshes of the Afternoon (dir. Maya Deren). Meshes is an experimental movie at heart, but is actually one of the more effective horror movies that I have seen in a little bit. While the protagonist is dreaming, she dreams of a nightmarish landscape full of disjointed imagery, warped reality, and mirror faced cloaked figures. Under the Skin is able to infuse several disjointed images and experimental animation into an understated horror movie. This gives the movie an edge of experimentalism that may be hard to grasp for the casual viewer but is cat nip to someone like me who loves a challenging experience. These long sequences of mood images and the obscure way in which Johansson kills her prey give the movie a full immersion experience that leave you a little dazed when leaving the cinema. After the screening was over, my friend and I stumbled around the downtown area the local art theatre was located in a daze. Familiar situations, buildings and crowds became just as alien to us as Scarlett was to her world. We were both at a loss for words and unable to contextualize exactly what happened to us in that dark room. I love that feeling.