Sporting a dark wig, blood-red lipstick and a fur coat, and speaking in lusciously plummy clipped-Brit tones, the piquant Scarlett Johansson drives around Scotland in a grubby white van, enticing horny hitchhikers to hop in for a lift. Few, inevitably, can resist. They get more than they bargained for once they do, though, for what the men don't know is that Scarlett's femme fatale is actually an alien on the hunt for human prey.
But while going about her mysterious mission – sometimes abetted by a glowering motorcycle man – our anti-heroine observes human activity, and gradually becomes a participant in it. A group of hoodlums rock her van aggressively. A gaggle of party girls manoeuvre her into a club. The turning point comes when she encounters a shy disfigured man who stirs her sympathy and interest, inspiring her to abandon her assignment and take a walk on the human side for a while.
From its woozy – practically migraine-inducing – opening sequence to its startling, snowy deep-woods climax, Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin proves a total trip and a treat. Distilling Michel Faber's acclaimed novel to its essence (in a way that may not thrill some of the book's admirers), Glazer - in his first film since the intriguing but muddled Birth (2004) - produces something that's as singular as it is cinematic: a movie whose mix of sci-fi poetics and gritty social realism suggests nothing so much as David Lynch taking Ken Loach out on a date.
That the film doesn't go down an explicit horror route, even as it constantly threatens too, may disappoint some viewers. But Glazer's approach is, distinctively, all about suggestion and atmosphere. Mica Levi's haunting strings-and-synth score shimmers and shivers over images that veer from abstraction to cinéma vérité, while the director's background in music video shows through in the highly stylised scenes in which the hitchhikers meet their fates. These sequences are beautifully, captivatingly creepy, with water and darkness and bodies popping and melting like Francis Bacon designing Terminator 2.
Throughout, the use of locations – from beach to shopping centre, city street to suburbia – is also superb and if the film presents a very bleak, grotty vision of Glasgow, Glazer's approach isn't entirely without humour either. "Are you comfortable?" asks Scarlett of one of her victims, in her most seductive mode. The reply: "No, I just wanna go to Tesco."
Acting alongside a very motley crew of men, Johansson proves absolutely ideal casting as the woman who falls to earth, her distinctive gait and watchful air projecting a curious otherworldliness without ever overegging it. Throughout we feel the character taking in the various impressions and stimuli she receives from her surroundings – whether its grim-faced shoppers in the streets or Tommy Cooper on the telly – and becoming increasingly receptive to it. As a chilly exploration of what it means to be human, and a compelling vision of our everyday world through alien eyes, Glazer's movie gets precisely where its title indicates.