THE WOMAN Review
Lucky McKee's The Woman starts off with a whimper and ends with a bang, as all good horror films should. McKee's newest project shows the attention to story and atmosphere that many contemporary horror films have lost, instead filling that space with grue. The film is horrific, dark, demanding, at times hard to watch, and unsettling. Then again, there are a surprising number of humorous elements to The Woman, well, surprising if you don't know McKee's style. The Woman is a brutal film, but not in the way that a Saw film, or a Hostel is brutal, it is brutal in that it insists upon making you witness to man's inhumanity to man, or, more specifically, to woman.
The Cleeks are introduced as a classic American family. Husband and wife, Chris and Belle, live in a country home with their three children, Peggy, Brian, and the youngest, referred to only as Darlin'. Everything seems just dandy on the outside, but from the moment we see them away from mixed company, a darkness seems to descend over the family, especially Mom and Dad. We suspect all along that something isn't right, but can't really put our finger on it.
Enter The Woman.
When Chris comes across a feral woman in the woods, he decides it would be a great idea to take her home and civilize her, kinda like Eliza Dolittle. Only in Chris' case, civilization involves chaining her to support beams in his storm cellar. Okay, here we start to get a hint of the kind of crazy these characters are hiding, but the real trip is when Dad enlists the whole family to help. Now, in a normal household, this might elicit some concern, however, while the Cleek family finds the situation a wee bit odd, no one runs, we get the impression that Daddy wouldn't tolerate that, and everyone does their part.
The Woman doesn't speak English, instead mumbling words from an unfamiliar language and snarling most of the time, so we are left to interpret her demeanor as evidence of her state of mind. Using that metric, she's pissed. Daddy Cleek feeds her like a dog, powerwashes her, and worse. He does this all with a smile on his face and the genuine belief in his heart that he is helping her. Sean Bridgers (Chris Cleek) said in the Q & A following the film, no one intends to be evil, even Hitler thought he was doing the right thing. Things aren't all smiles in the Cleek house, though, as we soon find out when Belle questions her darling hubby's methods and gets told in no uncertain terms that her opinions hold no weight in the house.
Here's where the film gets interesting, and for your benefit, I'll not reveal too many details of the plot beyond this point because they make the film that much more powerful when you are blindsided with them. Belle's objection to her husband's treatment of The Woman kicks off what is one of the maddest climaxes in recent American horror history. The film spirals out of control, with character devolving to their basest states, and we get to see what happens when so-called civilized people are freed from the constraints of societal pressure to conform and be "good". It is ugly. This is a kind of a rape-revenge story, only in this case, the victim isn't alone in her vengeance, and even those who wish to help her sometimes forget their role in her confinement and end up on her bad side.
If the second half of the film presents a complete change in tone from the first, the last fifteen minutes lose all inhibition and go for the jugular. Lucky McKee has built a very delicately layered film that reveals more and more not just as the minutes pass in the theater, but even after the credits roll. I feel that I need to see this movie again, just to take it all in without being blinded by shock the entire time. What seems like a left-field revelation in the third act, is actually alluded to all along, so said McKee in the Q & A, and I would really love to see how I missed that. I left the theater completely invigorated and I can't wait to visit it again.
There are a number of reasons that The Woman works, but the biggest reason is the amazing cast of the film. McKee brought on some absolutely brilliant performers who played their roles completely straight, as was necessary for the film, and managed to convey the underlying current of dread in the Cleek household without hamming it up too much. Sean Bridgers' Chris was particularly effective, you could see both the menace and the concern in his eyes. He played his cards just right, and the film rests on his performance as the psychopathic father. Opposite him, Angela Bettis as Belle, takes her role as mother to this clan very seriously. I must admit, I haven't seen her in anything but May and Sick Girl, both times she played a younger character and her features are that of a young woman, but I lost that when I watched her in The Woman. Her demeanor is that of a beaten woman, a woman who may have been abused physically, but certainly has been beaten down emotionally and doesn't bother fighting back anymore. Angela Bettis nails this role and I didn't think she could. Finally, Pollyanna McIntosh gives one of the bravest performances I've seen in recent horror history with her portrayal of The Woman. For half of the film she is nude, I say that not to titillate, but to show her complete commitment to her role. While she is nude she is power-washed, beaten, and treated like a dog; McIntosh goes where most actresses wouldn't dare. She takes the punishment doled out to her by Mr. Cleek and family with a sneer and somehow manages to make her gibberish language sound menacing, when by all rights it should be hilarious. I will definitely keep my eye on her, she seems like a perfect heroine for a Gaspar Noe or a Lars von Trier with her complete ability to commit to a role that is so physically and emotionally demanding.
McKee has shown again and again that he is one of the most female friendly genre directors in the field today. If anything, I would interpret this film as a summation of his ideas about institutionalized misogyny and how easily it can be disguised as something else and covered up with a smile in the larger world. That viewers, at a film festival no less, would show the complete inability to separate the artist from the art baffles me. There are obvious sympathetic characters in The Woman, and there are some who are borderline, but the true misogynist in the film is neither, he is a bad guy. The only way this film could be construed as misogynist is if the viewer relates to the misogynist as the hero of the film, and I think that says more about the viewer than the film.
The Woman is a film that should be seen. Lucky McKee has made a couple of modern horror classics, and if whoever picks up The Woman for distribution treats it properly, I think this will end up just as well-regarded as May, if not better. I understand that there will be an announcement to that end in the next few weeks, and I certainly hope it helps the film get around, because The Woman deserves it.
- Lucky McKee
- Jack Ketchum
- Lucky McKee
- Jack Ketchum (novel)
- Lucky McKee (novel)
- Pollyanna McIntosh
- Brandon Gerald Fuller
- Lauren Ashley Carter
- Chris Krzykowski