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Under the Skin review: Scarlett Johansson haunts in mesmerising sci-fi

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Director: Jonathan Glazer; Screenwriter Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer; Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Paul Brannigan, Jessica Mance Running time: 108 mins; Certificate: 15

When people look back on 2014 as the year in which Scarlett Johansson became an interesting actress again, it will be because of a pair of radically different roles that nonetheless play like two halves of a whole. In both Spike Jonze's Her and Jonathan Glazer's haunting, singular sci-fi Under the Skin, Johansson plays a non-human entity who develops empathy and self-awareness and, for want of a better word, a soul.

Based loosely on Michel Faber's blackly comic novel, Under the Skin follows a predatory alien who inhabits the body of a young woman (Johansson) and uses her charms to prey on unsuspecting male hitchhikers along the motorways of Glasgow.

Faber's novel had the men drugged, mutilated and processed into meat in a sly metaphor for factory farming. What becomes of them in Glazer and Walter Campbell's script is much more abstract and frightening, defying explanation, each marked by the same section of Mica Levi's keening, violin-led score.

The victims are lured into a black room, the interior of which seems to combine dark liquid with an impossible void, and slip silently beneath the surface, eyes fixed on Johansson's retreating form. The aftermath of this process is glimpsed only once, in a transcendently horrifying sequence.

The film's opening - a cacophony of indistinct sounds and forms, setting the mood rather than the scene - works like a palette cleanser for the senses, creating a queasy milieu in which the everyday becomes alien. A crowded shopping centre or a throbbing nightclub appears grotesque, where a darkened motorway conversely seems like sanctuary.

Much as Johansson's otherworldly glamour sits at odds with her surroundings, Glazer's intoxicating cinematography adds a strange gravitas to the film's low-fi aesthetic. It was shot largely undercover on locations around Glasgow and the Highlands; most of the seduced men are not actors and were unaware that they were being filmed. Johansson's tangled black wig and double denim worked more effectively as a disguise than the production team predicted, and lent these interactions an invaluable looseness.

Where in Her Johansson worked only with her voice, here she's all but silent, speaking only when necessary to entice her victims. There's something extraordinarily sad in watching this perplexed, alienated creature begin to grapple with something like a conscience, and the shift only leaves her vulnerable in very human ways, the hunter becoming the hunted. Where the initial setup inverts the traditional dynamic of a male predator stalking lone women, an uncomfortably familiar status quo is restored by the third act.

Under the Skin's disorienting power comes initially from its strangeness, the ambiguity of its threat, but the horror of its climax is rooted in the familiar. With his first film in close to a decade, Glazer has created a captivating nightmare, a heady, haunting experience that demands multiple viewings.


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