In the days before my writing of this piece, I was lucky enough to attend a talk Martin Scorsese gave on cinema. During the talk he asserted that for a horror film to work, it must work first and foremost as a film and then as a horror film. Though I always think about why great films work and this was hardly the first time I had heard such a sentiment expressed, it stuck with me more than usual as I was watching Under the Skin. I have debated on more than one occasion whether the film would be best classified as horror or science fiction, but that its genre is so undefinable that the debate exists is part of the source of the film’s brilliance. Under the Skin is seemingly simplistic, but all its basic elements are immaculately executed and add up to something that defies comparison and understanding.
The film is an adaptation of the book of the same name and, as with the other aspects of the film, during a period of several years the concepts behind the film diverged from their source material. At one point, Brad Pitt was even attached to the project and the film included a subplot involving an alien couple masquerading as farmers. Eventually all of that would be scrapped and the film found its final form in the minimalistic and ambiguous story of an alien woman experiencing life on earth and seducing men for unknown reasons.
Under the Skin includes no dialogue essential to its plot or atmosphere and could function just as well as a silent film as the physical performances are more than enough to carry the film forward. The film is purely visual storytelling on a level that has rarely been seen since the Silent Era yet most of its visuals are extremely simple. When not out on regular streets, observing ordinary life, the film’s depictions of the otherworldly are notably lacking in definition. The extraterrestrial at the center of the film, when not in its human disguise, is a dark, featureless, humanoid shape and the room where she lures her victims for the movie’s most unsettling sequences similarly lacks any decoration and seemingly stretches to a black infinity on all sides save for the ground which is a similarly bleak, but now reflective, surface that is both solid and liquid.
Beyond the dialogue and the visuals, nearly every aspect of Under the Skin takes the simplest form possible but is dazzlingly compelling and forces an uncanny amount of depth through sparsity, especially in Mica Levi‘s soundtrack. Not just the distorted sounds that often populate science fiction films or the high-pitched ones that can fill the musical backings to horror’s greatest scenes- the music can be beautiful at times and nearly painful to listen to at others. It is one of the most perfectly constructed soundtracks in film and always the perfect accompaniment to the eerie occurrences on-screen.
Though Scarlett Johansson gives perhaps her greatest performance to date in Under the Skin, most of her scene partners were not professional actors. Their characters would echo their true human reactions to the scenes without any theatricality and, in fact, hidden cameras were used in many instances to further ensure that those filmed would act their scenes in a natural and believable way. While most of the spoken lines are improvised and many of the scenes have no direct connections to each other, the film never loses its tension and is never aimless in its search for meaning. In fact, the film’s purposeful ambiguity allows each viewer to find their own meaning in the film and few will come away from Under the Skin without finding a depth beyond what would first be assumed to be present.