Minds will be blown to the four winds. And — fair warning — a percentage of American ticket buyers may find themselves exasperated and/or exiting early.
The film is "Under the Skin," the trippiest in any genre in a long while and a genuinely experimental and haunting study of strangers in a strange land. British director Jonathan Glazer ("Sexy Beast," "Birth") and co-writer Walter Campbell have taken the Michael Faber novel, stripped it for parts and ventured their own way. Their chief collaborator is Scarlett Johansson in the role of the watchful woman with the London accent, dressed in a black wig and a fake fur, picking up stray pub-crawlers, hitchhikers and loners in Glasgow, Scotland, and environs.
What she does with these men, and why, remains shrouded in what could be called lucid mystery. The woman, who has recently assumed human form, comes from elsewhere. She's an alien, born or transformed in an introductory scene recalling images from "2001: A Space Odyssey." The black liquid void of this prologue recurs throughout "Under the Skin." When the woman takes her hookups back to her place, the place turns out to be the last place, this black sea of enigma. And this is what the men get for their deceptive good fortune: a farewell visit to the world's murkiest spa.
The style of the picture is startling, combining many influences but never frivolously. Glazer shot much of it like a gritty, street-level documentary, with several tiny hidden characters placed inside the alien's Ford van. Many of the conversational encounters between Johansson and Glaswegians on the sidewalk, or in a club, involve nonactors, real people, not realizing a camera was running and that their scene partner was Johansson in a black wig and fake fur. (The scenes with nonactors were included only after the participants signed a consent form.) Key male roles — among them a shy young man with an elephant-man facial disfigurement brought on by neurofibromatosis, played by Adam Pearson — are filled by professional actors. The blend is seamless. The black-void sequences are wondrous: Special effects that are truly special and spectral.
As "Under the Skin" travels farther north and the remote Scottish countryside presents new and dangerous horizons, the alien begins to assess the human race in a new way. She is a sponge, learning about behavior and emotion as she does her job. (In the novel, the job's details are made clear; she's harvesting men for food for the home planet. The movie keeps it open-ended.) There is another alien afoot, a male on a motorcycle, working in tandem with Johansson's character. But as human frailty somehow registers within the alien's consciousness, human threat goes undetected.
The way Glazer films "Under the Skin," it's a blend of gritty neorealism in the vein of Andrea Arnold's films, particularly "Red Road," and modestly scaled, elegantly wrought fantasy. I suppose a lot of people, mostly men, will give "Under the Skin" a try because of the nudity. But it's not that kind of nudity, really. It's not any sort of conventional anything. It feels fresh and unpredictable, as quietly strange as the remarkable musical score from first-time feature film composer Mica Levi. Who knew that the "Borat" guerrilla-style approach to storytelling would yield such intriguing results in the science fiction realm? With Spike Jonze's "Her" and now with Glazer's unclassifiable puzzler, Johansson is learning that playing an entity a little less, or more, than human has its artistic advantages.
'Under the Skin' - 3 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language)
Running time: 1:47
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun