You may well have seen the YouTube video of one Sundance Festival attendee’s reaction to The Woman. He’s disgusted, outraged, and feels that the filmmakers (writer/director Lucky McKee and co-writer Jack Ketchum, adapting from their novel) are amoral monsters. Of course, this is one vociferous man’s opinion, but The Woman has definitely provoked heated reactions. It’s been called both misogynist and feminist, described as fiercely intelligent and not as clever as it thinks it is. We went to the film’s UK premiere at FrightFest to decide for ourselves.
Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) seems like a pillar of his community. However, a closer look reveals that his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and eldest daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) are terrified of him, while his son Brian (Zach Rand) is developing some disturbing habits of his own. Only young Darlin’ Cleek (Shyla Molhusen) seems unaffected. One day Chris finds a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) in the woods. He traps her, chains her up in the cellar, and tells his family that their project is to civilize her.
If you’re faint of heart or stomach, or easily disgusted and shocked, sit this one out. As Sundance showed, The Woman is a provocative film. McKee and Ketchum absolutely have set out to provoke reactions and discussion. It’s unflinching in its depiction of domestic abuse, not to mention the brutality inflicted upon the chained woman. Taken at face value, the story of a man abusing a captive in the cellar sounds like just another unpleasant torture porn flick. But this is something different.
First there are the Cleeks, McKee and Ketchum’s satirical, nightmarish version of the all-American family. The tension when Chris is onscreen with his family is almost unbearable. Belle is wide-eyed and frozen, horribly aware of what’s going on but unable to do more than linger in doorways and acquiesce to her husband’s commands. Peggy’s silent desperation and baggy clothing are signs of something that only her teacher seems to have noticed, while Brian is definitely his father’s son. It’s made very clear from the start that Chris is the real monster of the film, with Brian a close second. What the Woman does is provoke the characters into self-examination and action. Chris begins to lose control over himself and his family, Brian’s darker urges are given horrifying focus, and Belle and Peggy have to determine whether to stay quiet or fight back. It’s fair to say that the Woman is a metaphor for the bound and gagged rage of the two women of the house, indeed as a metaphor for the horror of domestic abuse in general. But at the same time, she is a living, breathing creature of feral violence herself. And which violent force do you root for?
The Woman herself is introduced twice. McKee opens the film by showing her baring her teeth, hissing, and killing a wolf, before a gently-scored dream sequence has her seeing a wolf licking blood off a baby. When Chris first lays eyes on her, half naked and biting into a fish she’s just caught, the music is reminiscent of testosterone-fuelled, all-American rock. The musical choices are bold and will almost certainly not work for everyone, but they put the viewer into the mindsets of the various family members. It’s an odd mix of rock and bubblegum pop tunes that were written for the film, which we found worked incredibly well.
The cast is fantastic, but the clear standout is McIntosh (Exam). It’s an incredibly brave performance that’s stunning in its physicality, while her growing manipulation of the different family members is hypnotic. Bridgers (Deadwood) is horribly believable as Chris, while McKee’s muse Bettis (May) is predictably excellent as Belle. Rand and Carter also give impressive performances that bode well for their future careers.
The film demands a lot from its audience. They have to be willing to endure the brutal and frequent scenes of violence against women, next to which the music choices might seem disrespectful. There’s the sly sense of humour that rears its head and causes nervous laughter in unexpected places. And finally there’s the blood and guts of the third act as things build to a violent crescendo. There are a couple of jarring notes in the build-up to these scenes, but the finale is done with such ferocious energy and intensity that they don’t matter too much.
It’s intelligent and inventive while not shying away from any of the harsh realities of physical and sexual abuse. The film is quick-witted, gut-wrenching, brutal, clever, and has an incredible central performance from McIntosh. There’s a good chance that you’ll hate it and disagree with this review, but you’re certainly going to have an opinion.
Verdict: The Woman is not for everyone but it’s violent, shocking, gory horror that reaches out and grabs you by the throat. You will be thinking about it and talking about it afterwards.