There was a lot of buzz surrounding Friday night's screening of The Woman here at the Boston Underground Film Festival. Sold out days in advance, there was a line of excited and nervously anxious patrons that wrapped around the theater, pooling outside onto the sidewalk. There seemed to be one common topic being discussed by all of the 200 odd film fans, the already notorious Sundance video clip.
There have only been a few screenings of The Woman since its Sundance premiere and even fewer reviews. Apart from a few stills, there has been almost zero promotional material released yet for the film. Nearly all of the hype and controversy now following the film is based solely on that one viral video clip.
Just how intense is The Woman? As with any story adapted or inspired by a Jack Ketchum novel, the synopsis alone provides plenty of opportunity for abhorrent and shocking material. Even before the film, a lot of people were letting their imaginations run wild with expectations of degradation on the level of, if not beyond , A Serbian Film.
Before the screening, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Lucky McKee and one of the film's producers, Andrew van de Houten. Even Houten warned me that he had difficulty sitting through the dailies during production, that the film he was producing had upset him to the point where he had to leave the room during editing sessions. Shit, man. I was nervous. I didn't think this was going to be something that I wanted to see.
I was damn sure to stuff my pockets with a bunch of free vodka samples being shilled out during the fest. I figured I might need a few shots through out the film to numb myself and whatever sensitivity left in me that hasn't already been desensitized from years of genre festival attendance. Did the material warrant all of the dread? Is the abrasive content as offensive as some are claiming? Is this the Martyrs for 2011?
Yes and no.
The Woman is a wild and totally bizarro roller coaster ride that descends onto some dark and shaky ground. It's an engaging and engrossing film that aims to make its audience as uncomfortable as possible, but it wasn't quite the sucker punch to my admittingly low sense of morality that I had anticipated... And I'm glad for that.
The first thing that a person needs to know is that one of the strangest aspects of The Woman are the multitude of different lens through which the film can be viewed.
This is a sequel to a somewhat obscure, low rent horror film called Offspring, which in turn was a sequel to an unadapted Jack Ketchum novel called Off Season. Although The Woman is being released and marketed as a stand alone film, whether you're familiar with the original source material will completely alter your entire interpretation of the film and its core themes. There is an entire mythology and history to the film's lead character and knowing that history actually changes the story.
Pollyanna Mcintosh plays The Woman in a powerhouse performance that carries the film through many of its shakier moments. Mcintosh is a feral animal who was once part of a pact of predatory cannibals who lived like cavemen in the woods of Maine outside of a serene upper middle class suburb. She's a monster, a wolf living in the skin of a human.. She was initially the villain in the previous stories, a character to be feared. Knowing that changes the tone of this film and almost voids out the picture's ruthless portrayal of misogyny...kinda. Rather than being a film about a man's hatred of women and his sick and violent manipulation of them, the film becomes a battle of wills, a twist on horror genre conventions where two evil, destructive forces battle each others.
But with the relative obscurity of Offspring, all of that is going to be lost to the majority of viewers. If you're going into The Woman cold, you're seeing a film about man's obsession with battling the great wild and the ways they try to tame it and their power hungry aims to control women and objectify them. Without seeing Offspring, the feral tribeswoman of the woods is no longer a creature that needs to be destroyed but a sympathetic victim and physical representation of nature itself. You can almost think of her as mother earth itself.
The film opens with a psychedelic montage of the woman's life in the woods inter cut with images of her new born child lying in a nest of twigs. The baby is bathed in a pool of blood being lapped up by a wild wolf. A moody synthesizer score plays in the background. It's an incredible sequence that could stand on its own as a short film or music video. I knew from those beginning moments that I was in for something special but things get even stranger from there.
Sean Bridgers gives an effective performance as Chris Cleet, a family man with his own a business and penchant for late night hunting. When he finds the woman bathing nude in a creek on one of his excursions, he decides to adopt her into the family. She becomes nothing more than a new dog for them to break, train, and condition.
Although the film is a bit of a slow burn, the constant fear in Chris's wife and daughters' eyes foreshadows the brutality to follow. Angela Bettis also gives a strong performance as the meek and weak willed wife who enables Chris' horrific actions which in turn inspires their son to unimaginable deviancy.
One decisive attribute of the film is its use of music. It's even possible to categorize The Woman as a classic musical. As with May and Sick Girl, Lucky interjects poppy rock tunes through out the film. Original songs written for the film featuring the lyrics that are synchronized to the action on screen play through out much of the running time. Many of the songs provide exposition and insight to what's happening on screen. But the ironic use of up tempo music set against bleak as night material may be distracting for many. I'm still on the fence whether it worked or not. At times, I found it unnecessary and others, distasteful. Yet, as a whole, it creates a unique and disquieting tone. For some, it did the opposite and provided a brief sense of relief. Again, this is a strange little film that's nearly impossible to compare to anything else, at least, tonally.
Story wise, The Woman is reminiscent to Deadgirl. On a superficial level, both films ask the same question. If a man were able to find a woman who's essentially been dehumanized into a primal animal that can't speak, and has no knowledge of societal norms, what would he do with her? The answer in both films is that any man would do the same thing, turn that woman into a sex slave punching bag.
The film certainly has its share of intense moments, most of which is made all the more upsetting by Mcintosh's masterful performance. But Lucky rarely wallows in the violence. Much of the torture and disturbing actions take place off screen. This isn't torture porn. It isn't until the climatic moments where any actual viscera is shown.
The film is so surreal and far removed from reality, that it simply didn't impact me the way it has many others. There were people physically shaken in my audience, and I spoke with a few women who were outraged by the picture and there was plenty of heated debate amongst film goers at the after party, but there's nothing that comes even remotely close the brutality showcased in Martyrs, a film that I personally found distasteful and even worse, pretentious, and stupid.
For me, The Woman doesn't really work as a parable for gender issues and the darker aspects of the American nuclear family. There's a lack of information for the family members. I had no feel for who they were or where their motivations came. But that's not necessarily a criticism, for me it's best to describe watching The Woman as a pure experience. It's a picture about mood and tone. It forces you into a nightmarish world that feels grounded yet skewed to abstraction. It's up to the viewer to decide whether they want that type of experience. Even though it's not structured as a conventional horror film, it's this aspect that makes the film classifiable within that genre. I'm still mulling the material over, and I'm sure there will be a few more drafts of this review before I publish it. Watching the film was like waking up from a bad dream, the worst of dreams. I remember it but am having trouble placing the specifics and interrupting it.
The Woman is best described as perfect midnight viewing fare, a strange and nasty film that you watch in the early morning hours simply to test your boundaries. This is the ultimate cult film, a piece that really belonged in the 1970's. A pure exploitation film that doesn't nod or reference other exploitation films. Although, it's also an art house film. It doesn't really titillate or provide catharsis for guys who get off on violence against women. It's packed with supremely icky stuff but is not directly offensive. At least, it wasn't for me. Obviously, it is for many others. It kind of plays out like the greatest Tales from the Crypt episode never made.
It's difficult to really discuss the film further without revealing too many of its surprises. There's a final act reveal that seemingly comes out of the left field. This also split many audience members' opinions. Some found it brilliant, others thought it was a cheap last minute ditch effort to shock. I thought it was the former. But again, the meaning of the ending is completely different depending on whether you're familiar with the previous stories. I almost prefer the interpretation one might come to not knowing the source material.
I look forward to further viewings and expect they may tend different results. I also expect to see a lot more on this in these pages in the coming weeks. I predict there will be strongly conflicting views and opinions on The Woman. It's been a constant topic of discussion amongst my peers and I the past four days meaning this is a film all of you need to check out. One thing is for sure, I'm damn glad I have another two weeks to process it all before I interview Lucky McKee at Cinefest in Philadelphia.