by Barry Meyer
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The Woman is one of those controversial films that you either love or hate. You love it because you get it. Because it speaks to you on a level that’s above the usual horror fare. You hate it because it scares you. Because, not only does it scare you, but you get it, and the message is what scares you. You hate it because it’s a mirror that reflects back the things you don’t want to think about.
And that’s the reason why I think this movie works, because it throws back in our face the very things we try to avoid. Because it makes me think and analyze my own thoughts and beliefs. I’m always up for that challenge…but too many people aren’t. That’s why they’ll hate this movie.
In Lucky McKee’s The Woman, the Cleek family of rural Maine, in first appearances, look to be your average, functional family, attending a local picnic. Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), the head of the household, is a successful small town lawyer, overseeing his family as they mingle. His wife, Belle, is the doting mom, keeping their children in check and out of their daddy’s hair. Middle child, Brian (Zack Rand), practices his hoops, while keeping an interested eye on the girl who’s getting teased by the other boys. Oldest child, Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), hides herself from the boys, behind old paperback novels. And little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen) is full of innocent mischief. They aren’t the Cleaver Family, but in Chris’ eyes, he’s got it made.
At home, for the rest of the family, Daddy’s ideal version of life isn’t so wonderful. Dad keeps Mom in check with the periodical backhand. Brian’s obsession with the perfect streak of foul shots is practiced out of fear that he’ll lose an ongoing playground challenge with a girl. And big sis Peggy’s baggy clothes hide a secret from the outside world, but maybe not a secret in her own household. The worst of it comes when Dad brings home a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) that he’s found running half-naked through the woods, and cheerily announces that her domestication will be the next family project.The Woman is chained and locked in the hurricane cellar, where each and every Cleek is administered their duties to care and tame her.
The subject of “civilizing” a woman isn’t exactly new, but then again Chris Cleek ain’t no ‘enry ‘iggins, and the Woman is loads more unsophisticated than Eliza Doolittle. So, instead of linguistics and etiquette, Cleek utilizes more barbaric tools — power hoses, shackles and chains, and rape. Welcome to the age of enlightened man. Not even the feral males of the Woman’s former tribe (in the film’s prequel Offspring) were this cruel…and they were barbarians.
The shocking part of this film is not the ultraviolent climax (which art house crowds will surely wince at it, while gore fans will howl with delight), but in the everyday violence that goes on “right next door.” Chris Cleek is not the serial killer monster who stalks the city. He’s not the workmate that goes postal at the office. He’s just your neighbor…who happens to do bad things to his own blood an’ kin. These types, believe it or not, are far worse than the others, because their crimes are hidden and go unpunished. And worse, the scars they leave, the sad lessons they teach, run deep, and get passed on like a bad family heirloom.
The script by terror legend Jack Ketchum and co-written by the film’s director Lucky McKee, juxtaposes nuanced character build up and bravado moments of violence. The characters aren’t just loathsome, or simple victims, or mere enablers; they are — as usual in Ketchum’s works — real people. They may be doing unusual things. But, then again, they are caught up in unusual circumstances. But, outside of the circumstances, the Cleek family is basically a real family. No, they may not be like you and me, but that’s not to say they don’t exist. We’ve all known people who spoke about women the way Chris Cleek physically handles them. We’ve all known teenage girls who’ve hold deep dark secrets, like Peggy hides. We’ve all either known, or known of, a family from our old hometown, who had some real weird shit going on behind closed doors. A question that arises from viewing The Woman is: what’d you do about it?
I’ve known kids, from my own youth, who acted out like Brian Cleek, an impressionable son who tries so hard to follow his father’s lessons. Brian is certainly conflicted, but hell, it’s his Dad! Conflicted or not, he’s got trust in him. Then there are the hormones. Conflicting feelings once again, as Brian tries to be a “man” like his Daddy. He knows he shouldn’t be in the storm cellar, alone with the Woman, so that’s why he does it on the sly. And it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have a clue about what to do with any woman, let alone a feral one. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to be the “man.”
Tell me these issues aren’t the least bit familiar. Daughter Peggy has similar conflicts. Her chore is to hold up a sheet while her daddy hoses down the feral woman, to prevent the neighbors or passers by from seeing the twisted bathing scene. She breaks down in tears, embarrassed and ashamed by her father’s task of civilizing the Woman. But, saddened and frightened as she is, she stays, and keeps her mouth shut.
Mother Belle is probably the most upsetting of the characters. She sits (not stands) by as her husband fills her boy’s head with the one sided view of the politics of the sexes, and subdues any ounce of self worth in her daughters. The lack of urgency that she has towards the well-being of her own children is just as horrifying as the physical and mental violence of her husband. Imagine, a mother who sits and sobs, but never raises a hand as her child is being harmed. Well…you don’t have to imagine it, just look in the papers.
This is what The Woman does best. On the surface, it’s a terrific shock thriller, but underneath, it’s an even greater dark satire. All the faults and foibles in each character are familiar to us. Chris Cleek’s bloated sense of masculinity, and Brian’s misconceptions of it, Belle’s complacency with being the submissive wife for the good of the family, and her daughter Peggy’s struggle with it. Even Peggy’s teacher, who fancies herself the heroine to her students, boldly (but misguidedly) ventures to the Cleek ranch to take matters in to her own hands. To this seeming impropriety, Chis Cleek mimics what has become the credo of many parents around the USA: “How dare you come into MY home and tell me how to run MY family.”
This is the statement that rings out loud and clear. We’ve all heard it. We’ve probably spoken it a few times. But, do we ever really mean it? Or is it just a defense mechanism to get people to stop analyzing our own shortcomings? It sure is easier to turn the blame on outside influences rather than to take a hard look at oneself. It’s easier to say “Hey, I’m not getting involved — it’s their business, not mine,” rather than stand up for what you know is right and good. And this is what baffled me about the now infamous Sundance angry man. He certainly appeared to be an open liberal minded person, defending the rights of women, and all. But, ironically, he was attacking the filmmakers as if they were the ones perpetrating the vile acts of misogyny and pain that ran up on the screen. He demanded the film be confiscated and never seen again, as if this film would somehow motivate males into becoming their own version of Chris or Brian Cleek.
I’d love to pawn this off on simply mistaking the author for the character, but that’s too easy. It goes deeper than that. What I believe happened was that this man was severely affected by the satire of this film — that societal complacency propagates these beliefs, that the male is superior over woman, nature and family — that he had to deny it, by simply believing that he, himself, would never do those vile acts, so “Hey, you can’t blame ME!”
Yes, it’s easier to sponge away the writing, than to act upon the words.
But, lest you think I justify my admiration for these kinds of films that exploit the current fascination with sexual captivity and violence because they serve up a dosage of nudity or sex, I have to tell you that you couldn’t be more wrong. Hostel, Captivity, the remake of I Spit on Your Grave, et al, all provide ample opportunity to gaze at their actresses. But, I wouldn’t recommend any of those films, because to be honest, they lack the sincerity in their commentary of violence and women. The filmmakers may express their good intentions, and critics may pull subtext from the cesspool of gore, but really, they’re just crying wolf. They didn’t think of anything but throwing some good ol’ sex and blood up on the screen.
The Woman is surely a disturbing and upsetting piece of film, but more importantly, it’s honest and powerful. You won’t be scared by The Woman because it’s shocking, but you’ll be frightened because it’s true. It holds the mirror to the face of society, and dares it to take a good look at how we view women, masculinity, and our duty as a community. It’s not for the weak-minded, because, frankly, that’s who this film satirizes. The viewer should remember that this is only a film (only a film, only a film), and the reality of the play is really right next door.
Barry Meyer was born to the world as the first scientifically produced Cathode Tube baby. He’s a film critic, videographer, editor, and writer, residing in Jamestown, NY.
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