The Woman (2011)
Dir. Lucky McKee
Written by Lucky McKee, Jack Ketchum
Starring Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Zach Rand
THE WOMAN has a deceptively simple premise. Archetypical father figure and successful lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers, in an astounding performance that could not be more different from his tightrope walk playing a mentally ill character in JUG FACE) is hunting in the woods one day when he discovers a ragged, feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, BURKE AND HARE, THE OFFSPRING, FILTH) living on her own as a hunter-gatherer. He incapacitates her with a sucker punch, and brings her back home to his obedient family, where he informs them that she will be kept chained up in their garage until she is civilized. Of course, that civilization process is going to be a rough road, complete with physical abuse, stress positions, dehumanizing treatment, and, inevitably, sexual assault.
Does that sound familiar? Had this film come out in 2006 instead of 2011, everyone would have been talking about how the film was an obvious metaphor for the Bush administration’s disastrous occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, right down to its uncomfortable evocation of Abu Ghraib. You’ve got this affable, middle-aged white man, totally normal and nonthreatening on the surface, who evokes lofty notions of tradition and civilization as a pretext to dominate, brutalize, and satisfy his own whims. That brutality nearly always comes with some folksy chuckle, some appeal to authority, some subtly demeaning put-down of anyone who might question his authority or his motives, which just makes it all the more perverse and infuriating. He doesn’t even feel the need to hide or downplay what he’s up to, because he has nothing but violent contempt for anyone who might take issue with him. Bridgers, with his bright blue eyes and boyish features, is a perfect embodiment of the superficially aw-shucks professional good-old-boy, and perfectly portrays the sociopathic viciousness that simmers below his friendly patriarchal demeanor.
|Prepare to hate this guy SO MUCH.|
I use the word “patriarchy” intentionally, because it’s obviously on director McKee’s mind here. Mr. Cleek presides over a perfectly formed Cleaver household, harmonious and idyllic until you realize that it’s harmonious only to the extent that he’s been able to utterly and decisively beat down his mousy wife (Angela Bettis, MAY) and barely-present daughters, and convince them all that it’s both totally natural and for their own good. His wife knows that his plan is insane, that he’s become a monster and is gleefully turning their son (Zach Rand… GHOUL? Not the Boris Karloff one, the 2012 TV movie. WOMAN is his first credited film) into a something maybe even worse. But she’s too intimidated by him to offer even the most mild resistance. There’s a great moment when she and the captured Woman lock eyes, and both realize the only sane thing to do is to kill this maniac right there… but she chickens out, can’t quite bring herself to try it. The Woman just looks disgusted. Not to belabor the point, but even if the metaphor is not specifically political, the cultural critique is startlingly pointed. Most of the time, bullies don’t even have to do anything to keep their power; we do the work for them by being afraid and just going along with it even when we know, when it could not be more obvious, that the whole enterprise is horrifying and inhuman. We chicken out, we turn away. Sorry lady, I feel for ya, but I’m just trying to live my life here, I can’t throw the whole thing into chaos just to do the right thing.
The whole movie is about that control, it’s about how we allow insecure, desperate frauds to frighten us and bully us and turn the world into a nightmare if they’re sociopathic enough to push harder than we’re willing to resist. We’re not willing or able to go as far as they are, because we’re just trying to live our lives, and so we give them an inch, and another inch, and before you know it you’ve got these dehumanizing systems in place, so firmly entrenched that we don’t even really see them there anymore, blackening our souls and infiltrating our minds. It’s how the guys who vote to spend billions killing foreigners step over the homeless on their way to work and don’t think twice about it. It’s how kids resent their parents for abusing them, and then grow up to do the same to their own kids. But most importantly here, it’s how the more men dehumanize and dismiss women, the more women internalize their valuelessness, constrain themselves, even embrace and defend the systems that keep them there. Fitting, then, that only a true outsider --the feral Woman-- can see the sham that all this is, and without speaking a word Pollyanna McIntosh conveys a dark, endless contempt for every single person perpetuating this vicious cycle.
|So many potential chain song references here, and yet that seems like it might be a little too far even for me.|
It’s a rough movie, an infuriating one. You got to endure a lot of sadism here, and are offered very little satisfaction in return. Even more than the other two Lucky McKee movies I’ve seen (excellent MAY and THE WOODS) this has a decidedly unconventional horror structure; no jump scares, almost no gore for most of the runtime. No dark, shadowy atmosphere, no supernatural, unnamable horrors to pique your imagination. Almost no real narrative conflict, even, since the titular Woman is chained up and beyond any ability to help herself, and obviously no one else is going to try. It’s just a long document of cruelty and helpless suffering, finely tuned to provoke and enrage. I mean, if any movie could fairly be labeled “torture porn,” it would have to be this one. And yet, there’s nothing about this that seems exploitative or bloodthirsty; it feels more like Wes Craven’s early work, LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT or HILLS HAVE EYES, the work of an angry, frustrated humanist lashing out at a world which brazenly supports real-life horrors while squeamishly sanitizing them on screen. But THE WOMAN has more focus and insight than either of those, and if you can manage to endure the journey, the destination offers something a little more satisfying and genre-friendly.
One thing that is often overlooked by scholars talking about horror cinema’s perceived misogyny is that it’s actually a genre which features, on average, more female protagonists than almost any other. That’s not necessarily an example of progress, of course, since horror protagonists are often going to be more effective if they seem vulnerable and victimized, and of course that’s a role Western society has always placed women in. But even so, simply having more female characters in general creates a (dispiritingly) unique opportunity to explore women, their worlds, their ideas, their issues. I mean, look at all the giallos I’ve reviewed that actually ace the Bechdel test, most with a female main character and some with nearly complete female casts. Try finding a Kubrick film that can do that, or, hell, even an action film or a sex flick. Alas, the downfall of the horror genre is that often it tends to regard its characters as more or less generic cannon fodder, so lots of times having more female characters does not really translate into having more interesting female characters, or exploring women and their experience in a way that more male-dominated films do not. McKee is a happy exception to that rule; MAY and THE WOODS are deeply female-focused, finding time and interest to explore their characters and the world they perceived and inhabit. In fact, of his seven full-length films, only one (2008’s RED, which I haven’t seen but which sounds good and has Brian Cox) has any significant male protagonists. But THE WOMAN may be his most explicitly feminist film; despite all the suffering endured by the women, McKee makes time to humanize them, to deal with their conflict and, crucially, their flaws. This is obviously a critique of patriarchy, but McKee doesn’t simply let his female character be passive victims; sometimes they’re active victims, sometimes they’re passive participants in victimization, but they’re all active agents, shaping their own worldview and destinies. Even when they seem to be wholly victimized, McKee reminds us that accepting victimhood is also an active choice, and it can have its own consequences.
|Oh good, the Romney family finally got their own movie.|
Of course, McKee isn’t the only voice here; he co-wrote the script with novelist Jack Ketchum, a kind of weird crime/horror writer known for so-called “splatterpunk” novels like Off Season and The Girl Next Door. Apparently it’s actually a sequel to his 1991 novel OFFSPRING (itself made into a movie, though not by McKee) which it turns out was itself a sequel to his 1980 cannibalism sensation Off Season. I didn’t know any of that going into this one, though I guess maybe it explains that otherwise confusing flashback early in the film where the Woman remembers something about children and wolves (actually come to think of it, I guess this is also why they don't feel the need to explain anything at all about who this feral woman is and how she got this way). I haven’t read any of Ketchum’s novels, but McKee must like him since this is the second of two novels he’s adapted, and he produced his buddy Chris Siverton’s weird-but-effective 2006 Ketchum adaptation THE LOST. Based on the film adaptations I’ve seen, I’m not sure Ketchum’s clear-eyed fixation on grueling, grinding human suffering is my cup of tea, but I’ll remain open-minded because his wikipedia entry claims he was mentored by Robert Bloch (PSYCHO, THE SKULL, THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) who himself was mentored by none other than H.P. Lovecraft (every horror adaptation since 1950).* Anyway, who knows what Ketchum’s deal is, but perhaps he appeals to McKee because his brand of horror offers something a little different from your standard dark room/scary noise formula.
McKee does right by the material here; it’s tricky stuff that could easily have been a rote exercise in grim, unfocused shock tactics in the hands of a lesser artist. He’s got some serious chops as a filmmaker, and is especially good at casting and getting exactly the right performance from his actors. There are a couple odd choices in there, though; for one, the movie is structured well, but can be edited strangely. Like in I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, the towering masterpiece of arty ridiculousness by McKee’s friend and recent co-director (on the even more all-over-the-place ALL CHEERLEADER DIE) Chris Siverton, scenes can linger awkwardly, they can fade all the way out and back when a simple jump cut would have sufficed, and that can make the rhythm feel languid and dreamy in a way which I’m not sure benefits this particular material. Not a disaster, but a little odd. The bigger problem here is the music; the soundtrack is packed with these dorky 90’s-sounding alt-rockers with sometimes irritatingly on-the-nose lyrics by composer Sean Spillane. They would have been fine in a deleted scene from EMPIRE RECORDS, but they’re outrageously out of place here, and they’re impossible to ignore since the movie practically turns into a music video on a few occasions. I don’t recall McKee’s other films being like this, so I presume this was done intentionally. Is it supposed to be ironic to have these long, corny rock songs in the middle of this insanely grim story? I don’t know, if so it might have worked better with well-worn pop songs (See: Anger, Kenneth); these knock-off wannabe Marcy’s Playground also-rans won’t cut it. So I don’t know what the deal is. There is a remote possibility --and I almost hate to bring this up, it seems like a cheap shot, but as a journalist I am obliged to explore all possible angles-- that McKee is just personally into this stuff. I miss the 90's too, man, but these songs couldn't be more wrong for this subject matter.**
But those are minor complaints, unequivocally dwarfed by the impressive stature of what McKee has accomplished here. This is a difficult, abrasive, grueling, lacerating film experience, something confrontational and pointed in a way which very, very few American films attempt. It’s simple, and (aside from a few meandering subplots) elegantly focused on a single concept which manages to start off bad and somehow still build its own furious tension, despite extremely minimal actual change in the narrative. It's full of performances which are stylized but still psychologically rich, it's full of allegory but never explicitly polemical, it’s repellent but disquietingly seductive. I’ve said it before this Chainsawnukah, but this time I really mean it: I’m very glad most movies aren’t like this. But on its own this is a powerful, absolutely riveting work of horror cinema. You may hate it, but it’s the work of a real artistic voice trying something bold and different. In the prophetic words of Harry Belafonte, “that’s right, THE WOMAN is (uh) smarter.”
* I never heard that (or, actually, any anecdote in which a human had a positive encounter with Lovecraft) but it’s cool enough that I’m going to accept it.
** Man, looking online it seems like some people really love these tunes, I don't know if Spillane has a large extended family or if I'm just the asshole here. So your mileage may vary, but either way they seem super out of place here.
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