Editor’s Note: This examination of the score in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin contains spoilers of the film throughout.
To be frank, none of us really knows exactly what’s happening at the outset of Jonathan Glazer’s eerie sci-fi masterpiece Under the Skin. More than likely a human eye, made of materials natural or unearthly, is being constructed for our ultimate femme fatale, played by Scarlett Johansson. This “preparation” is further emphasized and made musically opaque thanks to two main tracks. The first is the score of Mica Levi, a British composer in her debut scoring role, whose driving, fast strings add a foreign sense of uneasiness before the title card even hits the screen. More subtly, the convincingly English voice of our lead Johansson spends this period of formation to practice her consonants, not unlike Leeloo scrolling through an alphabetized encyclopedia in Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element. Her voice is distinct and a bit unsettling-these aren’t lessons in a particular language, rather in using human speech in general.
Glazer sets the tone early with this sequence, not only throwing the audience into a world of abstraction and artistic adventure, but importantly putting a premium on the sound of his film.
Glazer sets the tone early with this sequence, not only throwing the audience into a world of abstraction and artistic adventure, but importantly putting a premium on the sound of his film. Levi’s score is as persistent as it is haunting, playing a vital role in not just the mood, but indeed the evolving plot of the film. Often the music of a film will accentuate the atmosphere, engulfing viewers into a two-sense blanket of sight and sound, hoping the audience might forget for even a moment that they’re merely observing, rather than experiencing, the events on screen. Rarely outside of musicals does the accompanying music actively aid in sorting out the actions and thoughts of the characters, and certainly the best scores are those able to do this without being concurrently subversive or distracting. In pulling this off, Glazer and Levi craft a film which is as entrancing musically as visually, a none-too-small accomplishment considering the mystical overwhelming nature of Under the Skin’s imagery.
If the opening scene, the fleetingly abstract images of an eye being constructed with the comparably unclassifiable musical accompaniment, isn’t clear about how important Levi’s score is to the overall power of the film, this point is solidified soon after as Johansson sets off in her van. Gliding through the Glaswegian streets, this siren of beauty and danger is escorted by a chilling, slow melody of drawn-out strings and a single drum beat, repeating evenly and with calculated measure. Like Jaws, the anxiety in Under the Skin doesn’t stem from the innate terror of visually realizing the predator themselves (the former because the anticipation of the eponymous fish is as tremor-inducing as spotting a giant fin, the latter because the predator in question, Scarlett Johansson, is more often the focus of dreams rather than nightmares). Instead, the act of stalking, be it swimming or driving a windowless van, can send shivers to every member of the audience, but not without the fierce anticipation emphasized by a proper, definitive score.
Johansson searches for a suitable candidate in a game of catch-and-release that lasts nearly twenty minutes, all the while being ferried by Levi’s methodical hunting music. The prey are happy to help Johansson find her way as she stops to ask for directions, not having the benefit of hearing Levi’s music to know the true intent of her interactions; they see her as a helpless, confused Londoner, but the score tells us in the audience the true story.
The music makes a marked shift; the strings open up, screeching in higher pitches, whether a warning to the man of his impending fate, or more likely drawing him in faster like the sound of a mysterious seductress.
Eventually, the woman finds a suitable candidate, and having loaded the man in her van, drives back to her “lair”, a secluded, dark house off the beaten path. The music makes a marked shift; the strings open up, screeching in higher pitches, whether a warning to the man of his impending fate, or more likely drawing him in faster like the sound of a mysterious seductress. As the confident gent strides through the doorframe, the drum beat takes a faster tempo, no doubt signifying the heart rate of the man whose mind is full of lust and desire (as well as our pulses in the audience, oblivious to the horrors to come). Johansson and the man stride across the floor as the notes go higher in the octave signaling more and more intense danger until suddenly…it stops. The hunt is over, as is the music.
Glazer and co-writer Walter Campbell then more or less repeat this sequence as Johansson ventures again into the wet, Scottish night. Not only does the routine (stalking, engaging, capturing) appear more practiced and occupational upon a second round, but Levi’s score strikes an entirely different impression, despite for my money being altogether the same. The deliberately tempered drum beat now hits the audience as a guide, in a way putting us in the seat of the predator rather than the prey. Even as we now know that Johansson cannot be human, this second round helps us identify with her system. We now have the chance to see the men walking around the sidewalks from her perspective, which doesn’t minimize the anticipation and apprehension the hunting musical theme causes, but it does put them at our back-we are no longer scared, but are instead more interested.
When another poor slob follows Johansson home from a nightclub, the music mirrors what we heard during the first dance across the clear, black floor. This time, however, it rings much more playfully sinister; we know just what this bumptious Scot is in for, even as he is still oblivious, dancing to the very end of his life. As it does throughout the film, Levi’s score doesn’t toy with the characters so much as it highlights our changing perspective about them, making the tone of the movie surprisingly elastic for the opening half-hour.
But as the second man sinks into the oily abyss, Johansson sensually trotting away untouched, Levi sinks the audience into a new sense of torment with a bang. These goofy souls captured for the benefit of some distant planet (for food? entertainment?) are first submerged in an underwater sarcophagus of sorts, floating naked in an increasingly solid surrounding. In the silent chasm, the second man reaches out to clutch the hand of the first man (who floats a few feet away in a thicker layer of frozenness) until-CRASH! Terrifying as almost any moment in the movies last year, a cymbal crash not dissimilar from a trashcan lid dropped in the dead of night breaks the silence as the first man is quite literally sucked from his skin, leaving only a floating dermatological husk of man. Without the crash, and indeed the vacuous silence featured during the previous few minutes, this sequence would bear far less impact on the audience, and indeed the movie as a whole. This unique, incomprehensible, alarming sound snaps the film into a frighteningly tangible mindset: Johansson knows what happens to these men, and it is her job to collect them.
Soon thereafter, the hunter becomes the hunted, and because of the lack of dialogue or supporting cast, Glazer again leans heavily on Levi to help display this fact. As assuredly as Johansson bolts for the Scottish Highlands for refuge from her employer/colleague (the man on the motorcycle), the music follows suit, transforming from a brooding, striking score to a more natural, consistent accompaniment (as well as more gaps without musical backing at all). This silence is the ultimate sign of a perspective shift, as we finally hear and see the world as her victims from the opening act of the film did. The mystery of silence is daunting, and Johansson’s plight is now clearly dire.
As the men on the motorcycles head northward to the Highlands to seek out their problem employee, the trembling strings begin again, signaling that the reverse hunt has begun. In a way this makes the latter half of Under the Skin akin to many modern police dramas: a cop goes rogue driven by morals or emotions and is hunted down by their own kind. What sets this film above comparison, however, is how tangible the music makes Johansson’s situation, and therefore how intimate and personal the story becomes. So too does Levi’s score, which has by far the most romantically stirring turn as Johansson becomes intimate with her Scottish host (a nice man who finds her alone and shaken at a bus stop) in the face of the growing threat of being captured.
Further tying the fate of Johansson’s character with the emotional arc of the movie is the wispy, natural, organ-like sounds as she is driven deeper and deeper into unknown territory, eventually curling up in an unknown bothy. Just like her character’s thoughts on the setting, the score symbolizes both a warm respite from the torments of the outside world (both the unrelenting Scottish wind and the terror of her former employers) as well as the discomfort of knowing she isn’t at the end of her journey, and will likely never get there.
Those who have seen the ending know that the motorcycles never catch up, rather, it is with her final run-in with a logger that the circle of predation finally completes, at which time the strings and single drum beat return. A human, that vile and alien creature Johansson so carefully harvested for some period of time, becomes the predator and she becomes the prey. The timing of Levi’s slow, predatory march is nothing if not significant, signaling the end of her time as the predator, the prey, and even as a living member of this planet.