Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Black Widow postponed, we’re looking back on the best performances by Scarlett Johansson.
Even those skeptical of Scarlett Johansson’s talents would probably concede that Under The Skin finds an ideal application for them. Jonathan Glazer’s boldly immersive sci-fi thriller casts the star as a taciturn alien succubus, adopting a seductive human disguise to lure horny men to their doom. It’s a role that almost seems tailored to common complaints about her acting—namely, that there’s something a little blank, a little too emotionally opaque, about this particular A-lister. (At last, a detractor might quip, a chance for her to just be herself on screen!) Johansson, though, has played enough in-, super-, and post-human characters to suggest that her detachment is probably more feature than bug. Under The Skin puts it to such fruitful, purposeful use that it’s hard not to see her as co-auteur, her work as much a guiding creative force for the project as Glazer’s otherworldly craftsmanship. That the film essentially ends with the dissociative image of Johansson cradling and studying her own famous features greatly strengthens the case for it as a self-reflective star vehicle.
Isn’t she playing a kind of actor? The nearly abstract opening sequence, depicting the formation of an imposter eye, is set to the body-snatcher equivalent of vocal exercises, an atonal repetition of vowels eventually taking the sonic shape of Johansson’s familiar voice. Later, cruising the streets of Glasgow in a white van, this unnamed extraterrestrial offers an artificial imitation of human mating rituals—delivering line readings of pickup lines, trotting out calculated icebreakers. Johansson, toggling her inviting smile on and off, lets us see the strings of her character’s “performance” without overdoing the space-case remoteness. It counts as a dark joke, not a total implausibility, that so many of the starwoman’s marks can’t or willfully refuse to see that there’s something just a little off about her. They even roll with the fact that her bachelorette pad is an almost literal honey trap: a featureless black chamber—a darkened stage of sorts—that they sink into like a tar pit. (The laughter at these men’s mesmerized obliviousness sticks in the throat once we get a look at their fate—a truly haunting flash of body horror.)
The first hour is gloriously subjective, giving us Scotland through the eyes, but also the distorting ears, of a visitor. It’s in the second half that Glazer forces his cipher fatale through a rude awakening of empathy and anxiety: Like an undercover cop in too deep, she becomes what she’s masquerading as—and by extension, vulnerable to all the dangers young women face in the world. (One of the film’s brilliant tricks of identification is that we begin to feel invested in her plight at the exact moment that she begins to see the population of Earth as more than just bags of harvestable meat.) There may be a touch of the Kuleshov effect to Johansson’s turn; sometimes, it’s the context, not her spooky mask of unfeeling, that changes. But to suggest the emergence of a conscience without quite altering the pitch of her performance is a feat: If the same year’s Her proved what Johansson could do with dialogue alone, Under The Skin is basically its illuminating inverse, allowing the star to find humanity in a similarly non-human character through almost nothing but mannerism.
For as well as Under The Skin works as pure sensory experience, whittling its Michel Faber source material down into a series of uncanny encounters, there’s more under its skin, too. With Johansson supplying (and defamiliarizing) her mega-watt celebrity, the film becomes a portrait of a sex symbol grappling with her image and her wavering control over it. It gives the central role reversal of predator into prey a charge of melancholy, even tragedy: In the true nakedness of the climax, what we’re seeing is someone realize that the power she wields with her beauty is at once dangerous and temporary—and that those who covet it are more than indifferent but actually, actively hostile toward what’s underneath. Johansson may not be, as she’s controversially insisted, right for any and every role. But she was perfect for this one: an obscure object of desire, stranded in a world that has trouble seeing past the surface.