Movie review: “Under the Skin” lives up to its name

From the April 10, 2014 edition

As a valued member of the Columbus film criticism community, I am sometimes asked to share my immediate reactions by studio representatives after a screening. Trying to digest “Under the Skin” instantly was a near-impossible task.

It’s a film I would have liked to have slept on — or, preferably, to view again — before articulating a position. But having slept on it for a week now, the fact that it’s still living up to its title for me may be testament to its quality. (That said, I’d expect reactions to be pretty love-hate overall.)

So what do you need to know about the plot? Well. Scarlett Johansson plays a mysterious woman who seduces strange men in dreary Scotland. You may think, being a strange man, that a seductive Scarlett Johansson would be a welcome respite from the dreariness of Scotland. But you would be wrong.

Those who are especially hung up on traditional plots are probably not the target audience for “Under the Skin.” It’s impressionistic. It has limited dialogue. Despite an A-list star, it screams “art house.”

Still reading? Good. Because the third film from director Jonathan Glazer (“Birth,” “Sexy Beast”) is a disorienting and hypnotic experience. It’s a cold bath of sight and sound, shrouded in a dense fog (literally/metaphorically).

Johansson’s performance as an otherworldly Venus flytrap is icy, haunting and unlike anything she’s done prior. Between this and her (much warmer) voice performance in “Her,” I’m feeling very Team ScarJo at the moment.

But the real star of this film (yeah, I said film) is the craftsmanship. Gorgeous and inventive cinematography from Daniel Landin — who, like Glazer, worked in music videos for the likes of Radiohead — creates an uneasy mix of dread and beauty. And the unnerving score by Mica Levi is a tone-perfect blend of dissonant strings and droning noise.

“Under the Skin” is garnering Glazer a lot of comparisons to Stanley Kubrick — a touchstone that’s obvious from the opening credits. I’d throw a couple of very divisive directors in that mix in David Lynch and Lars von Trier. If you’re still on board after all that, maybe I’ll see you at the theater. This one I’m going to have to watch again.