The Woman **
Directed by: Lucky McKee.
Written by: Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee.
Starring: Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman), Sean Bridgers (Chris), Angela Bettis (Belle), Lauren Ashley Carter (Peggy), Zach Rand (Brian), Shyla Molhusen (Darlin’).
It may seem odd that I watched Lucky McKee’s The Woman less than a week after writing a post about how I don’t feel the urge to watch “extreme” movies any more. And if nothing else, Lucky McKee’s The Woman is extreme. But I did say in that post that if a movie interested me, I’d watch it. And since Lucky McKee made one of my favorite horror films in the last decade – the little seen, extremely creepy May – and his Masters of Horror entry, Sick Girl, was also wonderfully creepy, I consider myself a fan of his. So I watched The Woman, despite its “extreme” reputation, and the presence of writer Jack Ketchum – who some horror fans are huge devotees to, but I’m not one of them. The novels of his that I have read seem to replace suspense with violence that while disturbingly real, is also over the top if that makes sense. That pretty much sums up The Woman as well.
The movie is about a lawyer, Chris (Sean Bridgers) who appears outwardly normal. He lives with his family out in the middle of nowhere, and he enjoys hunting out in the woods that surround his home. One day, he spies what appears to be a “wild” woman, living alone in the woods, killing animals for food. Chris decides to catch her, which he does, and keep her chained in the family’s cellar. He doesn’t try to hide this from his family – in fact he shows the woman off to them all. He says that they need to help her – civilize her – and they are only doing what good Christians would do. His terrified wife Belle (Angela Bettis) says nothing, but clearly doesn’t like the idea. Their teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) spends most of her time crying. Their littlest daughter, Darlin’, sees nothing wrong with it, but she’s too young to really understand anything. Their son Brian (Zach Rand) though has the same sadistic glint in his eyes as his daddy does – despite the fact he can’t be much more than 14.
At Sundance, where the film premiered, there were apparently many walkouts, and people who were simply offended, calling the film misogynistic and disgusting. (One man even famously said the film should be banned, which is just silly). It certainly is disgusting – in fact disgusting is how you would describe the beginning of the movie, and it gets much, much worse before the end of the movie. The climax produces the type of images that I won’t be able to get out of my head no matter how much I try. I don’t want them there, but they’re there anyway. The charge of misogyny is less clear however. It is clear that Chris, and his son Brian, are misogynists – they view all women as objects, sexual playthings meant merely for their arousal and amusement. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wild woman, their wife, their daughter, their sister, their mother or their secretary. These two are irredeemably evil – even Brian, who is barely into puberty. And yet, it’s also clear that the movie abhors them, presents them as the villains of the movie, who we hope will get them comeuppance. And yet, the other way, the movie feels no sympathy for Belle either, clearly a battered woman, but when you watch what happens to her, it becomes clear that McKee and Ketchum don’t buy the “battered woman defense”. I think in the end, whatever points the movie is trying to make about gender politics (and the ending makes it clear that the movie is an allegory with some point to make on the subject), it gets lost beneath all the brutality on display, and the films own politics, which appear to me to be muddled.
I can’t say I liked The Woman, because I didn’t. I can’t even say that had I known how extreme the film would be that I even would have watched it, because I probably would not have. What I can say, however, is that McKee remains a gifted director of horror. There are images here that stand out, not just because of their extreme nature, but because of the way McKee shoots them. That cellar is one of the most foreboding locations in recent memory. And the performances are pretty damn good. Pollyanna McIntosh gives an utterly fearless, somewhat mesmerizing performance as The Woman. Sean Bridgers makes for a truly repellant villain. Lauren Ashley Carter somehow finds some tenderness in her character. Less successful is Zach Rand, who like pretty much any 14 year I can think of, doesn’t quite have the chops to make his character as repellant as Bridgers. And Angela Bettis, so good in May and Sick Girl, is too one note here. I’m still waiting to see if she can play a somewhat normal character and not someone full of nervous ticks.
And I can also say that I think The Woman is precisely the film that McKee and Ketchum wanted to make. The two tried to collaborate on a 2008 film, Red, with Brian Cox, but a few weeks into filming McKee (along with Bettis) were fired and replaced (the end result was a film that was barely released, and remains unseen by me). There are horror fans out there who will claim that The Woman is a twisted masterpiece. You know who you are – and The Woman is a film for you. But not for anyone else.