Film Review: The Woman (2011)

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Lucky McKee planted himself squarely under my radar back in 2002 with the release of May – a quiet, brilliant little film that gained an instant, well-deserved cult following. It was beautiful and original, carefully crafted and tailored perfectly to speak directly into the black little heart of every misfit horror fan that ever was. Aside from a million watchings and re-watchings of this masterpiece (and believe me, there were), there wasn’t much left for any of us to do but sit back and wait to see what Lucky McKee would do next.

Then came the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

With a few more films under his belt, McKee took his screen adaptation of Jack Ketchum’s novel, The Woman, to Sundance, where this happened:

To that yammering idiot’s certain horror, his (loud) outrage only solidified The Woman as a controversial, balls-to-the-wall must-see.

Ketchum fans will recognize this film as a sequel to 2009’s Offspring, which, together, make up two of the three entries in his Dead River series (the first being his 1980 novel Off Season), which follows a family of inbred, cave-dwelling cannibals. While it’s not mandatory to have read the series to keep up with the films, these books immediately made it onto my “must-read” pile after the full-on filmic assault that was The Woman.

On its face, the story is simple. A feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) is captured from her forest home by upstanding citizen and small-time country lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), who takes it upon himself to “civilize” her. Cleek enlists his wife, Belle (Angela-Bettis-of-course) and their three children – Peggy, Brian, and Darlin’ – as his bewildered accomplices in the project. Cue the anticipated torture.

Sometimes it’s hard to see past the controversy surrounding films like this; scandal tends to elevate the work beyond whatever notoriety it may – or may not – have enjoyed on its own merits, turning it, for better or worse, into an entirely different animal. That said, it’s the provocative films – the ones that make you cringe, or retch, or scream yourself into a YouTube video – that are out there on a limb, making their statements, existing whether you like it or not. If it goes down easy, it’s not art, and the art that sparks discussion (or outrage) is pretty much the only art that was ever worth a damn.

So there’s a deep undercurrent of gender politics running straight through the narrative of The Woman, and it’s to Ketchum and McKee’s credit that the film lets you do your own moralizing, rather than shoving it down your throat. There are so many incarnations of the archetypical Battered Woman in this piece, it’s hard to know where to begin. Belle, just as much of a prisoner as the woman, understands the inherent wrongness of the situation in front of her, though she knows that refusing to contribute to the “project” will only result in a set of literal shackles all her own. Peggy, the eldest daughter, is suffering the entrapment of her secret, while both she and her younger sister Darlin’ are obviously enduring a completely separate torture as members of the Cleek family. Peggy’s teacher, Ms. Raton, is in her own unique hell as a lesbian high-school teacher. None of the chicks in this film can catch a break.

And then there’s Pollyanna McIntosh. Having never been exposed to her work before this, I’m not entirely sure she isn’t ACTUALLY feral. The sounds coming out of her are all animal, and she plays the bloody hell out of the role without uttering an actual word. Obviously, her trauma is beyond evident without any subtext.

People really want to give this movie a lot of unnecessary shit by barking up the misogynism tree, which is ridiculously off-base, and a clear indicator that those people paid only half-assed attention to what was going on in the film. That’s not to say that the bulk of the story isn’t structured around the problem of misogynism – it is – but to call the film itself misogynistic is beyond reductive and completely missing the point. In order to be guilty of the charges levied by Screamy YouTube Guy and the like, it would have needed to condone and relish the violence on display without ever resolving it. It’s absolutely necessary for things to happen as they do, because those things are real – they actually happen, and they happen often. Without the naked brutality of it, the film doesn’t work – there’s no reason to give a shit about any of the characters in the film, let alone the actual issue as it applies to the real world. In all honesty, I don’t know that there’s another filmmaker out there with truer feminist sensibilities than Lucky McKee, and anyone who says otherwise is just pathetically ignorant of his work.

So on that level, I thought the film really worked; that said, I’m not going to pretend it wasn’t without its problems. The opening montage, while it seemed to function as a sort of “catching-up” to the woman and her situation, feels a little clunky and unnecessary, and looks amateurish, which is surprising considering McKee’s normally-sharp eye for aesthetics. The story could easily have begun with the introduction of the Cleeks without losing anything essential to the plot.

I’ve heard a fair amount said in regards to the value of a re-watch on this one; that subtle clues to the film’s ending are there if you’re looking for them. I did catch a few of these (in particular, the ubiquity of the family dogs, as well as Cleek’s references to Peggy’s sisters-plural), but the whole “anophthalmia” bit was completely lost on me, and wouldn’t have made any sense without the aid of that all-knowing know-nothing – Wikipedia. I can’t fault the film completely for this, though – since I haven’t gotten through the books, I can’t be sure that the affliction and its link to the family wasn’t referenced clearly somewhere earlier in the film. Not knowing to look for it, I could have easily missed it.

Lastly, I had some confusing feelings about Belle and her story arc as it came full-circle. I get that she empathized with the woman in her cellar, and surely made the connection between their similar-but-different imprisonments. And I get that, for the most part, she had no choice but to help her maniac husband in his mission, or he surely would have beaten her senseless many times over, if not killed her outright. I get that we’re supposed to be rooting for her while simultaneously rooting against her; I just don’t know if I feel like she completely deserved what she ultimately got. There were times in the film where it seemed pretty clear that the woman understood Belle’s situation, and that she saw their similar needs to self-preserve. Belle wasn’t beyond reproach by any means, but she was a victim too, and I guess that’s where I get tangled up. She helped a husband who would have killed her if she refused – is it completely fair to lump her in as a villain with him and her deranged son? Is she even actually culpable? I’m sure the answers would be clearer to me if I were the one shackled up naked in a storm cellar.

All told, The Woman is really a solid film. The effects are spot-on, the acting is tremendous, and it’s an important, if brutal, story worth telling. I’m inclined to say that the merits of the film – both artistically and from a broader, real-world perspective – ultimately outweigh whatever logistical problems I found in it, and story aside, I’d recommend it solely based on the tried-and-true combination of Lucky McKee and Angela Bettis.

Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

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About Kara_E

Kara is a Senior Office Assistant for the Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics at Indiana University. A past English major and lifetime writer, she has also served both as an actress and behind-the-scenes assistant for several projects with our friends at Clockwerk Pictures. Kara lives with her husband in Bloomington, Indiana. In her spare time, she is a freelance editor/proofreader for international students at Indiana University, and serves as an organizer of the Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).

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