“Under the Skin” has been dazzling and perplexing festival audiences since its one-two punch at Telluride and Toronto last fall, but, honestly, the film’s not that hard to figure out. What we have here is a pretty good “Twilight Zone” idea given a visionary midnight movie treatment by director Jonathan Glazer. What’s under the film’s surface is intriguing enough, but it’s the surface itself that holds you in a dark trance. A portrait of alienation filmed from the alien’s point of view — or is it just a woman’s? — the movie’s a cinematic Rubik’s Cube that snaps together surprisingly easily, yet whose larger meanings remain tantalizingly out of reach.
After a mystifyingly abstract opening sequence that seems designed to out-Kubrick Kubrick, “Under the Skin” comes to Earth — Scotland, to be precise — alongside a nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she cruises the nighttime streets in a van, looking for men. When she’s alone, she stares vacantly ahead, a computer in sleep mode. As soon as she spots a likely lad, her features animate. She needs directions, or she’s having car trouble, or she’ll offer to give him a lift. She’s like the set-up for a dirty joke he’s sure to tell the boys about later.
Of course, there is no later. The woman brings her victims — average blokes played by average blokes, some of whom apparently weren’t aware they were being filmed, let alone in the presence of a Major Modern Sex Symbol — back to a dilapidated mansion on a less-traveled road. She invites them in, and. . . what happens next is not fair to give away. Only once do we see one of the men’s ultimate fate. It’s very fast and very violent, and it almost leaves an after-burn on your retinas.
If you want the pleasure of decoding “Under the Skin” on your own, you may want to skip the next few paragraphs. Here’s my take: The woman, wherever she’s from, is a lure. You know those nightmarish fish from the bottom of the ocean that entice their prey with a gobbet of flesh attached to their heads? She’s the gobbet — the bait, the dry fly at the end of the line. We never see the angler at the other end, and that’s probably a good thing, for the movie and for the audience. Anyway, the question “Under the Skin” really wants us to ponder is this: What happens when the gobbet becomes curious — perhaps even begins to develop a conscience? Can a lure feel empathy for the lured?
Johansson is eerily present yet not present throughout, as though the actress had stepped out of herself and left a skeleton crew at the controls. In a way, the role is a continuation of her celebrated vocal performance in “Her.” There she played a computer program, a digital Pinocchio who wanted to become a real girl but instead turned into something too big for our puny human brains to contain. Here she’s present in body but not in soul, at least initially. When the woman picks up a man whose face and body are warped with disfigurement, it’s as though a piece of a larger hive mind were prompted toward pity, even as the man himself rejects it. The sequence is eerily tender, the outcast and the predator groping blindly toward each other.
Much more disturbing is an earlier scene in which the woman takes advantage of a tragedy she witnesses on an isolated beach. There is an innocent who cries out to be saved and is not, a mark of both the movie’s cruelty and the woman’s obedience to her operating instructions. The scene isn’t terribly violent and yet it’s horrible; you may wish you’d never seen it and yet you may keep returning to it in your mind, as if touching a wound.
“Under the Skin” is a powerful, cryptic experience, one that moves slowly but with eyes wide open, and it re-establishes Glazer’s mastery as a filmmaker of mood and menace. His 2000 debut, “Sexy Beast,” was a British gangster flick in which Ben Kingsley played a thug of startling depravity; Glazer’s follow-up, “Birth” (2004), was a chilly, pretentious reincarnation riddle that nevertheless has its fans. His third movie is more up-front than ever about the director’s love of abstract imagery and murky plotting, yet it seduces you as ably as the woman reels in her victims. Daniel Landin’s camerawork feels raw and degraded yet beautiful, and the ambient soundtrack by Mica Levi is almost a character in its own right — birdsong from a harsher planet.
Toward the end, the movie leads us to its most densely plotted moments and its most metaphorical, and “Under the Skin” teeters on the verge of saying something nearly obvious about the aliens we all carry under our own skins or the lost, anonymous souls beneath the surface of beautiful women. Glazer knows too much to press his luck, though. If he’s anyone’s cinematic heir apparent, it’s Nicolas Roeg’s, the British director whose puzzle-films include “Don’t Look Now” (1973) and this movie’s spiritual godfather, 1976’s “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” This time it’s a woman who falls to Earth, and the mystery is how much further she’ll let herself go.