Aliens in a Strange World

This is the first post in a four-part conversation between Tim Grierson and Glenn Heath Jr. Tim has the first post.


Artists hate being pigeonholed, especially at the beginning of their careers. When I was starting out as a music critic interviewing new bands, I would often ask what songwriters inspired them, trying to pick up on possible influences. I can’t even remember who it was now, but one front man politely but firmly declined to answer my question. “I don’t want to be put into a box,” he told me. “Journalists are always trying to figure you out or draw some parallel between what you did and what someone else did before you.” That’s a rough paraphrase, but the essence of his point has stayed with me: Critics are so intent on connecting invisible dots, whether within an artist’s work or between his and his predecessors’, that we don’t always take the time to let that work stand on its own. It’s a constant tension between the artist (the butterfly) and the critic (always wanting to pin the butterfly down and add it to his collection).

I’ve been thinking about pigeonholing a lot lately in relation to Jonathan Glazer’s films. He’s only made three movies in 13 years, but he’s starting to assemble an oeuvre that’s distinctive for its consistent quality and unpredictability. 2000’s Sexy Beast, 2004’s Birth and his latest, Under the Skin, are all quite good—that they come from the same person makes them fascinating.

Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast

Ray Winstone in Sexy Beast

Let’s consider what makes them different. None are close to being in the same genre. Sexy Beast is a pseudo-gangster film-cum-black comedy, Birth is a dark romantic drama-cum-psychological character study, and Under the Skin is a sci-fi drama with horror elements. They take place in very different milieus around the globe: the warmth of Spain, the chill (both literal and figurative) of upper-crust New York during winter, and the gray-sky dreariness of Scotland. The films’ scores also have little in common. Sexy Beast can occasionally feel like a curated jukebox, repurposing everything from Henry Mancini’s dreamy “Lujon” to the Stranglers’ 1977 snotty punk-rock hit “Peaches.” Birth is graced by Alexandre Desplat’s relatively traditional score, which incorporates piano and strings for moods that are sometimes wistful, sometimes somber. And Under the Skin exudes its surreal, otherworldly tone in large part thanks to Mica Levi’s electronic-orchestral music, which pays homage to the film’s sci-fi trappings while still feeling prickly and handmade. Even Glazer’s initial involvement with his projects varies. He was given Louis Mellis and David Scinto’s talky, tart screenplay for Sexy Beast, while Birth started from his own idea. Under the Skin was based on Michel Faber’s novel that Glazer, apparently, radically revised.

As for their similarities, those are harder to name. Birth and Under the Skin were both booed when they screened in Venice. Because of the superficially cool tenor of those two films, Glazer's been pegged as an heir to Stanley Kubrick. Like that front man I interviewed long ago, Glazer doesn’t take too kindly to such comparisons—not because he has any problem with Kubrick, but because he dislikes the associations they might conjure up in the viewer’s mind.

“That [Kubrick comparison] makes my toes curl up in my shoes,” he said recently. “I think [Under the Skin], good or bad, should stand on its own or fall on its own. … When I see a film I don’t want any comparison. I like films that just creep up on you, that you have no introduction to. I like that, I like to see a film in that way and I think when you put something in front of that, you’re being set up for a fall. It’s like a shadow that’s not of your own making.”

This is part of why my appreciation of Glazer has increased with each film: You can’t pin down what he’s doing or why. (And because he’s taken such a long time between films, there’s a built-up anticipation for where he might go next.) If it was tempting to think of Glazer as simply a stylish former commercial-and-video director after the fashionable cool of Sexy Beast, then the deep sorrow hovering over the muted, interior Birth redrew our expectations. And now with Under the Skin, anchored by a terrifically spare performance from Scarlett Johansson, Glazer has ventured into terrain that’s philosophical, metaphysical, and barebones, telling the story of a visiting alien luring single men into her lair so that she can harvest their bodies.

But now that I’ve complimented Glazer for his agreeably diverse collection of films—and at the risk of not heeding the advice of that front man from long ago—I’d like to suggest a possible thematic connection between Glazer’s three movies that might be there or might just be in my head.

After watching Under the Skin, his best film yet, I was struck by the fact that while Johansson’s unnamed character is the first alien to appear in his films, in their own ways Sexy Beast and Birth are also about people who are aliens or, rather, alienated from their worlds.

Interestingly, this alienation isn’t always a bad thing. Ray Winstone’s Gal, the retired safecracking antihero of Sexy Beast, is happily living in a beautiful Spanish villa focusing on his suntan while putting his former criminal life in cold, shitty Britain in the rearview mirror. But in Birth, Nicole Kidman’s Anna is in a much more dire situation. Still grieving for a husband who’s been dead for 10 years, she’s willing to believe that a mysterious boy (Cameron Bright) could be a reincarnation of him. Unlike Gal, Anna is living in the same physical environment but marooned in a new emotional environment she wants to escape—so much so that she sees this boy, as unlikely as it sounds, as a chance to return to her old life.

By comparison, Under the Skin tackles this theme in a much more complex way. Alienation, isolation, spiritual loneliness: They’re treated not as temporary conditions brought on by circumstance but, rather, a constant reality that weighs on us differently depending on the situation.

In Under the Skin, Johansson’s alien drives around Glasgow in a bulky van, stopping to try and lure male pedestrians in on the pretense of needing directions or offering them a lift. Whatever her feelings about her murderous assignment, Johansson’s character keeps them buried beneath her wig and fur coat. But she’s not alone in being mysterious and slightly aloof: The men are also like strange creatures cut off from the world around them. They reveal little of themselves in their brief, sometimes fatal encounters with her. (Underscoring their anonymity, none of Under the Skin’s characters are named in the end credits.)

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson in Under the Skin

I don’t want to ruin any plot twists for those who haven’t seen it, but one of the film’s strengths is how it gradually twists our perception of what we’re seeing, re-framing our sympathies and demonstrating how the notion of alienation can change over 100 minutes of screen time. In the story’s first half, Johansson goes about her business of attracting and killing men with unsettling efficiency, displaying no emotion. She can be just as charming and sweet as she was in Her as she’s enticing her prey, utilizing what The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane infamously referred to as “the honey of her voice” as a lethal lure. But when the men are led to their doom, the smile drops and the voice goes silent, replaced by robotic precision.

It’s not just her beauty that transfixes these men—it’s her ability to find isolated souls and tap into their loneliness. This is most poignantly demonstrated when she picks up an outcast with Neurofibromatosis portrayed by Adam Pearson, an actor who actually has the condition. Her tenderness is played out so genuinely—and his response is so heartrending—that it changes how she feels about her grisly assignment. And eventually, her change in attitude transforms how she behaves on Earth, bringing about unintended consequences that, as a result, force us to see her less as a hunter and more as the isolated soul. Likewise, humanity stops seeming like a foolish, gullible species and more like a cruel, predatory one. Suddenly, her separation from the world is not indicative of her superior powers—it’s an alarming, dangerous liability.

My reading doesn’t seem entirely out of the blue: In an interview with The Guardian last month, Glazer owned up to feeling a certain amount of alienation himself. “I suppose I must have that alien thing in me to start with,” he admitted. “Yeah. Probably. I do feel outside. Not entirely, but I do. I’ve had that about me since quite a young age I think.” (What adds to the appealing mystery of Glazer’s movies is that he’s not great at talking about them. “This is why I don’t like interviews,” he told The Guardian. “I sound batty.”)

Under the Skin articulates that feeling of being on the outside more acutely than his previous films—although, interestingly enough, it does connect to some of the music videos he directed before transitioning to features. The Dissolve’s Noel Murray has already noticed the link between Under the Skin and Glazer’s 1998 video for UNKLE’s “Rabbit in Your Headlights,” which depicts a transient, soulful Denis Lavant mumbling to himself as he’s hit by one passing car after another, each time standing back up and moving forward. Throughout Glazer’s music videos, the natural world is presented unvarnished, but with some strange twist that makes it feel surreal. In Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out),” the band members fall and move in melancholic slow-motion, lead singer Thom Yorke’s ability to levitate at the end representing a minor triumph over the group’s general dejection—and a precursor to Lavant’s similar sign of defiance at the end of “Rabbit in Your Headlights.” The band’s later “Karma Police” goes further down the rabbit hole, Glazer sticking a bored, almost catatonic Yorke in the back of a driverless car running down a terrified pedestrian. And in Glazer’s most acclaimed video, for Jamiroquai’s “Virtual Insanity,” front man Jay Kay is in a windowless room in which the floor keeps moving, the environment itself at war with the main character.

Glenn, I’d love to know what you think of my interpretations of Glazer’s output. Am I forcing connections that aren’t there? Are there other thematic links I’ve overlooked? And, ultimately, is it a mistake for a critic to go searching for them? I’d also like to hear your thoughts on another, somewhat related point.

As you may know, for Under the Skin, Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin used hidden cameras both inside the van and out on the streets. The filmmakers wanted Johansson’s interactions to feel as authentic as possible; in the process, they risked not getting the necessary releases from the extras, which would have left them with footage they couldn’t use. I’m glad not to have know about this ploy going into the screening: Johansson’s encounters are so natural that the “Look, ma, no net!” gimmick in some ways does a disservice to the skill she brings to these scenes. Under the Skin weaves its tale so beguilingly that perhaps it doesn’t matter how it was constructed, but I wonder if you felt any such misgivings about the technique.