The first twenty minutes or so of Under the Skin had me convinced that I was watching the best movie made in the last two or three years, at least: a cryptic sequence of sounds and images, yoked by visual motifs, that slowly and only implicitly coalesces into any kind of representation of actual things, suggesting that both horror and science fiction are burbling along in the background. It's easy to see why people have been insistently calling director Jonathan Glazer, making his third feature and his first since the exquisitely disturbed Birth a decade ago, a new Kubrick, though it is also lazy: the opening gambit of Under the Skin is like a pastiche of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, using the same series of stacked half-circles which in that film actually depicts a syzygy and in this film merely suggests one, though it turns out to indicate an act of conception. Or something. The whole things is heavily symbolic and non-literal, a way of using allusive and implicit imagery to draw us into a story which aggressively, playfully refuses to cede meaning on the blunt level of "this is what happens and why".

But the thing that is clear is that the opening images, cosmic symbols in a microscopic setting, and the droning, atonal sounds and quasi-music (the film's absolutely perfect score is by Mica Levi; not the kind of thing you'd listen to by itself, but a totally essential component of the movie's effectiveness), are somehow part of the creation of a being, probably not a human (actually, definitely not a human, but we don't get clear-cut proof of that until nearly at the end of the film), but in the form of a human woman played by Scarlett Johansson in the sort of physical embodiment of a script's conceits that can't really be scored on a "good vs. bad" scale, and perhaps doesn't even really resemble "acting" as most of us would tend to employ that word, for much of the time. Under the Skin is spent in its entirety, watching this woman driving around an unnamed Scottish city in a large white van with no windows in the back, pleasantly chatting up young men on the street and, if they prove to be free from any present obligations that might make them missed, taking them back to a kind of safehouse, where they die. Saying more than that wouldn't be a spoiler; it would require an unsupportable attempt to replace the actual facts the movie depicts with what can only honestly be called conjecture.

Everything that goes into the film's set-up, showing the appearance and establishment of this woman and then the first mystery of whatever the hell she's doing, is masterpiece level filmmaking, period. I have not, myself, been as excited as I was by the opening of Under the Skin since the opening of The Tree of Life. Which makes it a little ironic that, like that film, Under the Skin hits a point where the shattering perfection and complexity of its filmmaking and the jaw-dropping originality of its images begins to run out of a gas a little bit, and it starts to feel like the movie is trying to run out the clock a bit. That point strikes earlier in Under the Skin, and the movie sinks to a lower level as a result; it is never less than a completely fascinating and unique vision, and the structure is built so that the woman's first three victims each end up building and adding depth to our limited knowledge of what she's going on about; but it's also fairly undeniably the case that once we get to that point, the screenplay (by Glazer and Walter Campbell, adapting a novel by Michael Faber) sees fit to keep looping around and making things increasingly complicated without necessarily making them increasingly interesting and meaningful.

As complaints go, though, it's a pretty minor one. The film is still a giddy, glorious head trip, filtering its perception of the world through Johansson's very deliberately empty performance that gives the often generic shots of cities and countryside a patina of inscrutable, alien distortion; and the combination of a thoroughly inscrutable narrative through a relaxed, hyper-naturalistic flow of scenes adds to this feeling even more. The manner in which the film was shot is nothing but astounding: from a technical standpoint, what Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin were up to here makes Under the Skin one of the most amazing success stories of the year in movies. Cameras hidden in tiny little impossible crevasses around the van as Johansson drove around without a plan and talked to passers-by, in character, gives the whole film a disarmingly realist, without-a-net feeling, one that emphasises (to us, not to the "characters", if we can even call them that) the gulf between Johansson's artificial nature - a black wig and plugged-up British accent only add to the feeling of wrongness - and the utter normality of her surroundings.

The film is enough of a tabula rasa that anybody could read anything they want to into it; privately, I could care less about what it "means", than by the mood this all creates: it is as truly perfect a horror film as modern cinema has produced, even though it only engages in anything like horror imagery twice, and the first of those occasions dwells on its shocking, disgusting images so steadily and with so little editorial voice that it ceases to be horrifying long before it cuts away. Still the overriding tone of the movie is discomfort: the woman's inability to fit in properly (which, in the later part of the movie, after it picks itself up again, goes to some deeply satisfying places), the discomfort of the movie in depicting the woman, the discomfort of the viewer in watching a movie that sounds so erratic and has been cut together by Paul Watts with such discontinuous arrhythmia. There's a perverse inhumanity about Under the Skin, a constant feeling that everything is wrong, and this is the heart and soul of horror, which is about the violation of normal things by abnormal things. And yet the film never feels remotely like a genre piece; more that it uses genre-like sensations to get at a deeper consideration of the not-fitting-in-ness of people in relationship to other people.

The result is, basically, an atmosphere piece about alienation and being alone: the woman is alone, the people she targets are all alone, and the attempt to cease being alone that makes up the final act goes terribly wrong. It is not a pleasant film, certainly. But it goes about crafting its sensations and arguments so intuitively and entirely through formal means that I love it anyway, with a fierce desperate love. This is the most confident and bold kind of filmmaking, Glazer's most ambitious film yet (if also, perhaps, his least successful), and essential viewing for any cinephile, if "essential" is to have any meaning at all.