Written by: Jack Ketchum, Lucky McKee
Directed by: Lucky McKee
Starring: Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, and Polyanna McIntosh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Not every monster lives in the wild.
It’s been about a year since Lucky McKee’s The Woman caused a stir at Sundance, when it apparently caused a woman to faint and sent another guy on a tirade that was conveniently captured and subsequently uploaded to Youtube. Well-played publicity stunt or not, it seemed clear that it was lifting from the classic schlock-flick playbook of creating hype through infamy, a tactic that was probably unnecessary due to its pedigree. Such theatrics were also probably a bit misleading, as The Woman really isn’t much of an overt shocker until late in the game, long after it’s crept up into your brain more so than crawled on your skin.
The film opens on its title character (Pollyanna McIntosh), a wild uncouth savage prowling the wilderness in search of food. We then move on to the real jungle: the pastel-tinged, alt-rock-scored suburbia where the Cleek family have settled into an idyllic Americana defined by birthday parties and grocery store trips. The patriarch, Chris (Sean Bridgers), is a successful lawyer who likes to hunt for recreation, a past-time that leads him to stumble upon the wild woman roaming around in the nearby woods. Incredulously, he decides to capture her and tie her up in the basement, even letting his family in on the deal, telling them that they’ll just treat her just “like they treat the dogs.”
That the “uncivilized woman” here is actually less savage than her “civilized” captor is obvious--lots of horror flicks have played up the disparity between such perceptions. However, The Woman carefully draws out the unsettling horror laying beneath the seemingly perfect façade; its cracks are evident almost from the start, but the film takes its time in revealing exactly how fractured this family is. Ultimately, we’re privy to a searing suburban wound, one that’s fully revealed only after McKee has picked at its scabs for about 75 minutes and hinted at some deeply-seeded trauma at the center of the Cleek clan.
You can obviously feel something a little off-kilter as soon as Chris imprisons a savage woman in the same way he’d bring in a stray dog. But more unsettling is the family’s almost complete acceptance of it; you can sense further trouble in the understated performances of both Lauren Ashley Carter and Angela Bettis, portraying Chris’s daughter and wife, respectively. Carter’s a quietly troubled teen whose perpetually saucer-eyed gaze hints at desperation, and we sometimes gather that she might be the most sane person here. Likewise, Bettis feels like she’s been pressed into duty as a housewife--and I say that as a compliment. The horror crowd is used to her portraying slightly quirky but strong protagonists, so she seems buried under the weight of sweaters and aprons here, asked to play the doting wife who never seems to be comfortable in her own skin.
And we soon realize there’s a reason for that--it isn’t that she’s being oppressed by the milieu of matrimony; instead, her entire family is living under the thumb of her tyrannical husband. Bridgers completely commands this film in the role of Chris, a guy who speaks to everyone with a slight air of condescension as he orders them around with the terseness of a drill sergeant. At first, you don’t think much of this--you just assume that he’s one of those rugged, old-fashioned relics who treats strong patriarchy as a birthright. Even when he first comes across The Woman, the moment is accompanied by this swaggering cock-rock riff that leads you to believe he might just be a guy who never quite left the frat house. He puts her in his crosshairs (literally), but decides to bring her in to reform her seemingly because he can--it feels like some sort of bizarre conquest for him, and you almost wonder if Ketchum and McKee aren’t slyly taking the piss out of jockish alpha male types.
But no, as it turns out, Chris’s issues extend to full on psychosis that’s bred out of a disgusting misogyny, as evidenced by his callous treatment of his prisoner. Even more disturbing is how he’s passing it down to his son (“boys will be boys,” after all), and this is what leads to the film’s big boiling point. Whereas Chris once made his point with pointed slaps to his wife’s face, he eventually resorts to full-fledged fisticuffs in a suffocating sequence that sends The Woman off to its gore-soaked final act. It’s here that McIntosh’s character becomes an avenging angel for the film’s downtrodden female contingent; she’s a fiery, feral enigma*, marked by inhuman snarls and two piercing eyes whose resentment is as palatable as any physical punishment she ever doles out. The Woman gets both a bit heavy-handed and outrageous once it goes full-throttle, but McKee prevents it from being drowned out in a cascade of gore, keeping things reigned in just enough to stay genuinely disturbing.
I don’t know that The Woman is quite as accomplished as May, but it’s close to matching that film’s perverse deformity. Almost the entire thing is ironically and disconcertingly scored by affable, fuzzy rock tunes, as if McKee is attempting to lull us into the characters’ own denial. At different points, it plays as a domestic melodrama and a dark coming-of-age film, with the daughter’s nice geometry teacher (Carlee Baker) noticing the girl’s erratic behavior. Meanwhile, there’s a woman chained up in a shack, waiting to claw away at all of the repressed secrets. Now that The Woman is done touring the festival circuit, Bloody Disgusting has brought it to DVD as part of its “Selects” series, and it gets a fine presentation to do it justice, complete with a pristine anamorphic transfer and a robust 5.1 soundtrack. There’s one part in the film that’s particularly effective from an aural standpoint--Chris shoots a gun at close range to intimidate The Woman, and the sound design puts us in her position to make our ears ring, and the surround track mimics this perfectly. The disc has been filled out with quite a few extras, including a 25 minute making-of documentary that hits all the high-points of pre-production, set design, effects work, sound design, and actor interviews. This feature even tracks the film’s life all the way to its release at Sundance, so you can get a look at the aforementioned rant that contributed to the film’s early infamy. About six minutes of deleted scenes, an animated short from McKee, and a song from the soundtrack (accompanied by still from the film) round out the supplements. This is the best film from this particularly series of films yet; intense, violent, and impeccably performed, The Woman is one of the best horror films from last year. Buy it!
*Technically, The Woman is a sequel to The Offspring, which I assume illuminates more about McIntosh’s character; however, knowledge of that film seems to be rather unnecessary to enjoying this one.
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