The Pervasive, Iconic Beauty of the Screen and Score of “Under the Skin”
Jonathan Glazer's foreboding 2014 sci-fi masterpiece finds its emotional and intellectual equal in Mica Levi's unnerving score.
There’s a lot to dissect in Under the Skin, director Jonathan Glazer’s understated 2014 sci-fi masterpiece. The film, starring an otherworldy performance from Scarlett Johansson—who balances predatory sexuality with childlike curiosity—is based upon the 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, which gives away much more than Glazer’s abstracted and artistic screen adaptation.
In the film, Johansson is a traveler in perpetual loneliness, driving seemingly without destination around Scotland metro centers and countrysides in a white van. She encounters random men (real-life non-actors, whom Glazer casted by filming with hidden cameras and having Johansson approach them), taking up conversations and picking them up for rides, only for them to silently disappear from view in scenes cut so quick viewers are left with a feeling of quizzical disbelief coupled with a deep sense of dread. If this sounds vague, that’s because that’s exactly what it is. The mystery eventually, methodically reveals itself in scenes that are as beautifully shot as they are horrifyingly realized, but Glazer’s powerful design truly reveals itself only at the very end of the film—wherein we, the audience, after two hours of building subtlety and nuance, are given a devastating display of every hint we’ve witnessed up to the finale.
Glazer’s film could have been soundtracked by silence, but instead we are given a musical score that doesn’t just complement its visual counterpart, it elevates the emotion and eeriness to a plane that disturbs as much as it moves. Composer Mica Levi’s strings and synths crawl up your spine and set hairs on the back your arms shock-straight with winding, pervasive beauty—a mode featured prominently in the score’s instantly-iconic main theme. The frenetic compositions often appear at first silently, nearly undetectably, before they crescendo their way into buzzing chaos that fills the screen, as well as the deep recesses of your mind. Delivered in precise doses, the score is unnerving, beautifully so. By combining a mixture of allure and foreboding, it parallels Johansson’s character, binding us inescapably to her and her journey. And, just like the film itself, it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that has made a gigantic, landmark feat in its class. The ideal relationship between score and screen is one in which each art form improves the other symbiotically, and here Glazer and Levi have forged a moment in cinema that will not be forgotten—willingly or otherwise—anytime soon. FL