Jason Merritt/Getty

Telluride Film Festival Review: 'Under the Skin'

Come for the naked Scarlett Johansson, stay for the deeply unnerving sci-fi weirdness.

The late Roger Ebert had long insisted that it didn’t matter what a film was about so much as how it’s about it. To wit, describing Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” as the tale of an alien (Scarlett Johansson) preying upon human males in the body of a woman might suggest an especially schlocky endeavor, a Scotland-set “Species.” Such a reductionist reading would do no justice to Glazer’s spare, surreal study of an outsider examining our world with a clinical fascination, driven by a cryptic purpose, more akin to David Bowie’s visitor in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.”

Johansson’s nameless protagonist dons the clothes of a dead woman and proceeds to navigate the urban sprawl of Glasgow, striking up conversations with handsome young men along the way (with many being unwitting participants who failed to recognize the actress beneath a brown wig and British accent). The moment any of them suggest that they’re meeting up with someone else, she takes off. However, she gladly offers a ride to lonelier souls, luring them back to her cottage on the outskirts of town where they would seem to be trapped and harvested for their meat -- a fate suggested by any number of abstractly grotesque shots worthy of the director’s background in music videos.

Every time we return to that inky black void, we get a further glimpse into this process, and every time that she returns to stalking the streets, we get a better sense of this predator’s own burgeoning humanity, to the point where an encounter with a deformed man yields remarkable kindness, even if her character doesn’t realize it; he may be pinching himself to see if he’s dreaming, but this chap just happens to meet the basic criteria. However, her dormant sympathies soon pivot, and Glazer’s emphasis on urban male isolation is turned instead upon Johansson’s newly rogue operative as she ventures further into the Scottish countryside, a woman alone who’s never been a woman before.

Her superiors, mute bikers one and all, take on the appearance of men, and when she’s adhering to her implicit protocols, she flaunts her feminine wiles to ensnare her victims. In this regard alone, casting the gorgeous Johansson is a masterstroke, but the actress works wonders with the sparse dialogue and an often passive demeanor. From behind the wheel, the lights and shadows of the streets play upon her face like a blank canvas appearing alone against the pitch darkness of Daniel Landin’s lensing. Although the film’s second half is given to less alluring developments, Johansson carries it still with appropriate vulnerability and otherworldliness; those already on board through this point would be hard-pressed to look away.

Whether or not there’s much feeling to take away in the end is another story. Eerily scored throughout by Mica Levi, “Under the Skin” is a deliberately oblique piece of work that prizes rhythms and textures above hows and whys. If that very notion makes your skin crawl, then don’t bother, but more curious audiences may find that Glazer’s film does that well enough on its own.

SCORE: 8.3 / 10