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Film

Why 'Under the Skin' is Scarlett Johansson's greatest performance

@Russellisation

Though Scarlett Johansson enjoyed a fruitful early career in cinema long before the release of Lost in Translation in 2003, it was in Sofia Coppola’s contemporary classic where the actor would make a name for herself on the Hollywood stage. A charming and compelling lead actor, Scarlett Johansson would later become an icon of 21st-century cinema as a multi-faceted talent, capable of action roles in Black Widow as well as films of great dramatic weight such as Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. 

During the height of her success in the mid-2010s, Johansson had already starred in Marvel’s Avengers Assemble, featured beside Anthony Hopkins in Hitchcock and taken a role in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon before British director Jonathan Glazer came calling for Under the Skin. Part sci-fi drama, part experimental horror, Glazer’s film is a bewildering achievement that stars Scarlett Johansson as a sinister, mystifying alien being and would forever elevate the influence of the actor.

Donning a scruffy black wig and an extravagant fur coat, Johansson’s unnamed protagonist is a strange shell of an individual, an empty husk of infantile curiosity who prowls the streets of Glasgow searching for both prey and purpose. Having seen her peculiar origins at the start of the film, brought into existence through an ethereal biological process, she is not a malevolent being, rather she’s a silent onlooker, a strange force of judgement. 

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Leading unfortunate victims back to her lair, it is here that Johansson’s character consumes them in a strange, nightmarish bath of black fluid where they disintegrate and feed into some sort of living organism. It’s a strange, dark sci-fi tale that remains a cornerstone of contemporary cinema, taking viewers on a cinematic voyage that merges inconceivable visuals and a masterful score to form a human story from the point of view of a curious alien lifeform. 

Equal parts compelling and terrifying, Johansson’s character is one of the few in cinema that you can’t help but watch and decipher. Despite her constant wrongdoings and abnormalities, she is a fascinating character whose origins are truly inexplicable. 

Perfectly riding the line between sinister and alluring, it is Scarlett Johansson’s performance that ties Jonathan Glazer’s spellbinding visuals and Mica Levi’s extraordinary score all together into one convincing whole. Playing an individual who is, in theory, a mere shell for the faceless organism who lives underneath, Johansson provides a face and personality to the madness and even suggests that despite the chaos there may even be a moral soul under the skin.

A dark and cosmic piece of cinema, Under the Skin is a cinematic experience like no other that shines as an audiovisual exploration of alien life on earth. Underlined by Mica Levi’s score that is a sheer horrifying assault on the senses, Glazer’s film is a transportative experience that demonstrates the range of lead actor Scarlett Johansson. Whilst it may seem like a simple role to play, the nuance to her character is careful and considered with the actor perfectly embodying the strange alien lifeform with dominating power and ethereal grace.

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