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Short Takes: Under the Skin

By Nicolas Rapold

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(Jonathan Glazer, U.K., 2013)

Under the Skin

Birth director Jonathan Glazer returns with a deeply creepy film that, despite its science-fiction premise, is just as much a horror flick of disassociation. Putting the “alien” in “alienating,” Glazer’s third feature fuses a cryptic stranger-in-a-strange-land narrative, guerrilla shooting approach, and a tightly contained audiovisual scheme that makes for a claustrophobically seamless and unnerving drama of self-awakening.

Much of the film is set in the front of a van driven by an extraterrestrial predator in the form of a wigged and English-accented Scarlett Johansson, who picks up hitchhikers in and around Glasgow (almost all played by unwitting nonprofessionals, according to press notes). But Glazer, with DP Daniel Landin, regularly opens up the film to the stringent beauty of the Scottish Highlands and the disturbingly ethereal ultimate destinations for Johansson’s victims, portrayed dissolving into a vertiginous screen-filling black void.

Paring down Michel Faber’s 2000 novel, Glazer successfully creates a scenario in which an alien being for once feels genuinely strange. (The one misstep in the film’s progress comes in an unconvincing Elephant Man moment with an especially shy pickup.) Johansson’s fresh obliging manner, offset by her solemn expressions, makes a surprisingly good match for the extraterrestrial’s blank-slate state. But as for certain other cinematic sojourners from other worlds, life on Earth brings unforeseen challenges, and the film saves its most terrifying moments for the end.

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