After waiting thirteen years since Sexy Beast and nine years since Birth, Jonathan Glazer‘s striking two previous features, it’s no pleasure feeling the sense of anticipation and excitement steadily and surely slipping away throughout Under the Skin, in which the filmmaker makes a left turn into a very dark dead-end alley. Glazer, whose background is in music videos, has lost none of his ability to generate strikingly original images, as the opening of Under the Skin confirms: A small pinhole in the center of the screen grows gradually larger until it becomes a white, doughnut-shaped mass. A black orb then moves toward the center of the doughnut and makes contact, until what we are looking at resembles a human eye.
We seem to have witnessed some kind of birth here, though Glazer, who adapted Michel Faber’s novel, is deliberately short on details. In the book, this strange creature was called Isserley and had come to Earth with the mission of luring handsome human males into her trap so that they could be turned into a kind of alien caviar. Here, Scarlett Johansson bears no name and her motives are markedly less clear. In his attempt to render an alien point of view, Glazer devotes much of his running time to Johansson traversing Scotland in a cargo van, stopping to ask directions from various male passersby, whom she subsequently tries to lure into the van. For those thus tempted, the night is likely to end in an abandoned squat, where Johansson uses her mysterious powers (and various moments of undress) to lead the men into a strange dark pool that consumes them like quicksand. And that, as we later learn, isn’t the half of it.
Glazer’s initially intriguing formal conceit is that Johansson, reasonably well disguised under a dark wig, cheap-hooker couture and Brit accent, interacting with real unawares Scotsmen, all of it captured by small digital cameras mounted in and around the van. Glazer uses the hidden-camera method when Johansson is walking down a crowded Glasgow street, or ushered by a mob of female revelers into a nightclub throbbing with strobe lights and house music. In one of the movie’s more inspired, lyrical episodes, she offers a ride to a badly disfigured man en route to do his grocery shopping under cover of night, and seems not to notice his Elephant Man-like deformity.
And so it goes, for a needlessly protracted 108 minutes, as initial intrigue gives way to repetition and tedium. Glazer has always been longer on atmosphere and uncanny moods than on narrative, but the fatal flaw of Under the Skin isn’t that not much happens; it’s that what does happen isn’t all that interesting.
Owing to the dominant GoPro video aesthetic, Under the Skin becomes visually monotonous, too, only in a few more conventionally staged sequences featuring the kind of sharp, painterly images that graced Glazer’s prior features and the opening moments of this one. Similarly, all of the tech qualities are intentionally rough-hewn, with the combination of noisy location sound recording and cast’s thick Scottish brogues rendering large swathes of dialogue incomprehensible.