The Woman

Dir. Lucky McKee

Social satire or horror movie? Misogynistic or an attack on misogyny? Feminist tract or manipulative, objectifying glorification of violence? These are the kinds of questions that The Woman has raised with audiences and critics. Whether the film is viewed as a powerful portrait of misogyny, a thoughtful 'torture-porn' flick or simply a brutal and nasty gore-fest - The Woman proves to be an uncompromising and memorable ordeal. More a film to be endured than enjoyed, it has left audiences divided, devastated and immersed in deep debate. Frenzied viewers were left shocked, dazed, horrified, angry and outraged in its wake as it blazed through festival screenings and cinemas. Interestingly, apathy wasn’t something experienced by most viewers – The Woman demands that you have a strong opinion one way or the other. Of course, the danger with having such a fearsome and provocative reputation so adamantly preceding it is that it will fail to live up to the hype.

Does it? Well, it does and it doesn’t. It is shocking, gripping and well directed, but it is also very manipulative and morally black and white; the thinly veiled points it makes about gender relations, familial dysfunction, spousal abuse and contemporary morality are all hammered home with unwavering intensity.

Based on a screenplay by Lucky McKee and horror writer Jack Ketchum, The Woman works both as a stand-alone film and a sequel to the pair’s previous backwoods shocker The Offspring. It follows family man Chris Cleek’s (Sean Bridgers) attempts to 'civilise' a wild woman he encounters in the forest and subsequently chains up in his cellar. He forces his submissive family to partake in his attempts to tame her, but unsurprisingly, it turns out to be he who is far from civilised. The Woman leads viewers along a frequently shocking and emotionally draining trail, twisting and turning but always leading unavoidably to that haunting and unforgettable climax. From the outset, it is one of those films in which everything indicates it won’t end well. At all well.

While it does serve as an exploration of the darkness in humanity and the atrocious, barbarous things society does in the name of civilization, it is a fairly simplistic depiction of such. It takes barbed jabs at (patriarchally dictated) conservative family values revealing them to be inherently corrupt and hypocritical. While unquestioningly provocative and commanding, The Woman is maybe not quite the feminist allegory it has been made out to be. Perhaps best viewed as a pitch-dark sitcom, if you scratch the surface there isn’t really that much more going on. Everything is loud and blatant – but it is conveyed with enough vigor and conviction to ensure it remains pretty damn compelling.

While its obvious button pushing is clear, it remains effective. Its depiction of domestic abuse is unflinching and overwhelming in its matter of fact and abrupt execution. Even though the sporadic bloodletting will sate gore-hounds in its alarming intensity, it is actually the psychological horror and quiet degradation of the family unit that packs the weightiest punch. The female characters all live in fear of Chris. Tension comes from his unreasonable nature, his family’s inability to stand up to him and his tyrannical brand of patriarchy. He has no redeeming qualities – he has no moral grey area or ambiguity – he is presented as a clean-cut monster we’re actively encouraged to despise. He views his actions as morally righteous, and simply sees women as weak and deserving of such harsh treatment. Were these misogynous values instilled within him by his own father? Society? Or something broken, dark and damaged in his own soul?
Add to this the deliberately languid, slow-burn approach masterfully handled by McKee and you’ll get some idea of the stifling tension the film exudes.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the story is how Chris’s son begins to exhibit signs of following in his father’s footsteps, and is actively encouraged by Chris to do so. When Belle (Angela Bettis) chastises him for sexually assaulting the woman, Chris beats her unconscious and props her up at the kitchen table for daring to question their son’s actions, basically saying there was “no harm done.” It is in these moments when Chris condones violence and hatred towards women that get the blood boiling most of all.

The performances hold the increasingly extreme story together and all are highly effective. Pollyanna McIntosh is compelling as the titular feral woman. Equal parts threatening and vulnerable, the wash of emotions exhibited by her is startling; everything is conveyed through her eyes, body language and guttural attempts at communication. As the dominating patriarch, Sean Bridgers is unnervingly calm and manipulative; behind closed doors he treats his daughters and wife with violent disdain and contempt. The mask he wears is that of an upstanding pillar of the community, a respectable business/family man who attends barbeques and partakes in the All-American pastime of hunting. As awkward teenager Peggy, Lauren Ashley Carter quietly commands attention as she implodes in fear and distress at the events unfolding in her own family home. Angela Bettis meanwhile provides yet another reliable performance as the downtrodden, soul-broken wife Belle. Fearful, the frustration she feels as she helplessly watches her family be psychologically and physically abused consistently simmers behind her watery eyes.

The blood-soaked climax enthralls as much as it frustrates – and the fate of one character in particular boasts a distasteful ‘blame the victim’ slant. Otherwise The Woman is a very well made and commanding film – McKee’s best since May

The Woman (cert. 18) will be available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 17th October 2011 courtesy of Revolver Entertainment.

Special features include: The Making of ‘The Woman’, Deleted Scenes, Short Film – ‘Mi Burro’, Meet The Makers, Music track ‘Distracted’ by Sean Spillane and 5 Exclusive Limited Edition Art Cards (HMV only).

The UK Blu-ray release also features an exclusive extra 'The Film4 FrightFest Total Film' panel with Lucky McKee, Andrew van den Houten, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Ti West and Larry Fessenden.


WriterME said…
Great post! I've been a massive fan of Ketchum ever since reading The Girl Next Door, so very interested in watching this. Incidentally, the plot sounds similar in some ways to the narrative of that novel and its film adaptation...

The comments made about the film apply to much of Ketchum's writing and he has often been accused of misogyny and tackling such harsh topics (pro-lifers abducting a woman who is planning to have an abortion; a young girl tortured in the basement by a relative and the neighbourhood kids; a short story of a loving father, trying to protect his daughter from a recently released sex offender, yet a father who is a bit more "loving" than we bargained for...)

I guess the books offer a similar black-and-white depiction of characters, but remain believable at the same time. Eager to watch it, but with Ketchum, you're never in for an easy ride...
Unknown said…
I'm going to be sure to watch this... any film that can let you know it 'isn't going to end well' from the outset is fine by me.

I like reading your reviews by the way. A lot of people tend to try too hard to sound like a reviewer [if you get me] but you always keep it interesting XX
Nick Sayers said…
Thanks for the review. I haven't been too sure about this one for a while. You reaffirmed that it didn't have too much beneath the surface. That was the feeling I had all along.
deadlydolls said…
Agreed with a lot of your points James. I reallly liked the film, but the simplistic "Dad is good in public, but all men are bad behind doors" was a tad too easy. Especially when--


He runs away rather than try to help save his son once the woman is free. It was just too easy a "man, this dude SUCKS!" move that made the film a tad too , as you said, black and white.
Franco Macabro said…
I've read lots of good things about this one, and I remember enjoying MAY a whole lot. I will definetly be chekcing this one out soon. Thanks for that review!
James Gracey said…
@WriterME: I’ve never actually read any of Ketchum’s work. As far as I can see, his recent collaborations with Lucky McKee have been very well received - particularly Red.
I should probably read some of his stuff. I think he and McKee co-wrote the accompanying novel to the film – also called The Woman.
I do admire any writer or artist who can tackle such controversial topics though – and while The Woman wasn’t as nuanced, subtle or complex as I thought it might have been, it was still more intelligent and provocative than a great deal of the horror titles around at the moment. Hope you’re well!

@Kate: Thanks! Hope you find The Woman to be as compelling as I did.

@TMWNN: Not TOO much going beneath the surface, no; but still some really thought-provoking stuff. It never feels exploitative just for the sake of it. You might be surprised! ;)

@Emily: With some more grey swirled into proceedings, this could have been quite the lofty, high brow horror (it thinks it is). I do think the black and whiteness of it all added to the dramatic effect though – Ketchum and McKee really know how to get the blood boiling!

@Film Connoisseur: I LOVED May. Even dug The Woods. The Woman is very different to them in tone – though most of McKee’s usual preoccupations are present and correct – marginalised female characters, bloody revenge and a few barbed comments on microcosmic society.
Fred [The Wolf] said…
Hey James, I gave you an award:
James Gracey said…
Thanks Fred! And congrats on your award. Hope you're well. :)
WriterME said…
Hey, hope you're alright :)

Ketchum isn't always an easy read (the pedophilia story left me feeling like I had been punched in the gut), but always does it for me. He has used several storylines that are based on real events (such as The Girl Next Door), which pushes a number of my buttons; definitely one of my favourite horror authors..!

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