by Jason Coffman
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Lucky McKee’s The Woman was the center of a small controversy at this year’s Sundance Film Festival when an irate audience member was caught on video ranting about the film outside the screening. While it’s not hard to see why this particular audience member was upset— The Woman does feature graphic, protracted scenes of its title character being imprisoned and tortured— it’s also obvious Irate Guy didn’t stick around for the end of the film. Like Deadgirl, The Woman is a brutal horror film with a fiercely feminist heart. However, The Woman is not as subtle as Deadgirl, and anyone who has seen that film will know that is saying a lot.
The Woman is a sequel to author Jack Ketchum’s novel The Offspring, although reading that book (or seeing its film adaptation) is not necessary to understand what is happening in The Woman. The last surviving member of her feral family, the titular Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) lives in a forest, hunting animals for food and drinking from a creek. One day while out catching fish, she is spotted by successful lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers). Chris is living the American Dream with his nice house, wife Belle (Angela Bettis), son Brian (Zach Rand) and two daughters, teenage Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and young Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). When he spots the Woman, he sees an opportunity to embark on a family project: civilizing this wild creature.
Chris captures the Woman and imprisons her in a tornado shelter away from the house, and introduces her and the idea of his project to his family. Son Brian is clearly eager to keep her, while the women of the house are just as clearly uncomfortable but powerless to say anything to change Chris’s mind. Everyone returns to school and work as if nothing has happened, although we soon learn Brian has a fledgling mean streak towards women (expressed in his anonymous bullying of a female student) and Peggy catches the eye of a concerned teacher, Ms. Raton (Carlee Baker), who notices Peggy’s change in dress to baggy clothes, frequent trips to the bathroom, and reluctance to participate in gym class and wonders if she should bring this problem to Peggy’s parents’ attention.
As the film progresses, Chris is gradually revealed to be a truly monstrous misogynist. While charming— if a little condescending— in public, at home he physically abuses Belle and Peggy is utterly terrified of him. His attitude toward women has also been adopted by Brian, who graduates from schoolyard bullying to more advanced and adult abuse toward the Woman. Throughout the film writer/director McKee hammers home his points bluntly, making Chris into a villain of almost cartoonish proportions, which actually dulls the satire a bit. Instead of just being a cruel family man who runs his household like a prison, we later learn that Chris has a history of treating the females in his life like animals and doesn’t blink an eye when maintaining his personal status quo requires murdering a woman.
The lack of subtlety extends to the film’s soundtrack, which gratingly underscores virtually every moment of the film’s running time. McKee is obviously concerned with the abuse and violence against women that goes on behind closed doors in seemingly normal households, the complicity of those who know it happens and remain silent about it, and the hypocrisy of political conservatives, and he uses graphic violence and torture to confront the audience. The problem is that for the most part, he’s preaching to the choir: it’s hard to imagine getting this film in front of the type of non-horror audience these messages are meant for, and even harder to imagine them sticking around to watch the whole thing.
There is a lot to admire about The Woman, most notably its strong lead performances by Pollyanna McIntosh (who is alternately sympathetic and terrifying), Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers. Fans of gruesome violence will swoon over the film’s grand guignol finale, and horror fans who like to get “grad school” on their preferred choice of entertainment will find a lot to chew on. Unfortunately, that’s still probably not enough to convince the people who would possibly benefit most from seeing the film— the Chris Cleeks you see on the street and work with every day— to sit down and watch something this upsetting. And in that sense, The Woman feels like it deserves the rancor it aroused in that Sundance viewer, because if the person who needs to get the film’s message refuses to watch it, then what’s the point of all this suffering?
Jason Coffman is a film writer living in Chicago. He writes reviews for Film Monthly and “The Crown International Files” for Criticplanet.org as well as contributing to Fine Print Magazine (www.fineprintmag.net).
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