Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Zach Rand, Lauren Ashley Carter, Carlee Baker
US theatrical: 14 Oct 2011 (General release)
UK theatrical: 14 Oct 2011 (General release)
When you hear the set up, you cringe slightly. Decades of obsessing on horror films and exploitation efforts predetermine the path this proposed fright flick will take. As far as your encoded proclivities dictate, the villain will be vanquished, but only after traversing a narrative that will offer up sick, seedy schlock inside a more or less misogynist mindset. There will be rape, torture, and above all, revenge - and gallons of gory blood will flow. Well, The Woman does indeed follow a plotline of least resistance. It does introduce a disturbing concept and then sees it through toward its destined logical ends. But then it goes bugnuts insane, approaching the material in such a unique and unhinged manner that the results become something of a masterpiece - a weird work of art, but a surreality to celebrate none the less.
The title terror in this case is a feral female (Pollyanna McIntosh) who apparently is the sole surviving member of a flesh eating clan (many consider this film to be a sequel of sorts to another splatter scarefest entitled Offspring). Living deep in the woods, she is completely uncivilized and undomesticated. Enter creepy lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), an absolute control freak who runs his household like a gulag and turns his own family into a collection of undiscovered dysfunctions. He enjoys hunting, and one day comes across the lost lady bathing in the river. Deciding that she needs to be taken in and “trained,” he cleans out his cellar. Then he sets up a trap and waits for the right opportunity to spring it.
Eventually, the “Woman” is introduced to the rest of Cleeks - smarmy, sexually curious son Brian (Zach Rand), scared and severely depressed daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), and meek, subjugated wife Belle (Angela Bettis). Per Dad’s instructions, she is to be cared for and ‘cultured,” taught how to behave like a proper human being. Of course, the wild child has no desire to be anything other than a destructive cannibal. However, as her situation grows more and more shocking, she befriends the other females and plots to payback Chris for all those hard, harmful lessons and late night “experiments” upon her person. As violence finally erupts, no one is prepared for the truth behind the Cleek’s isolated life…including what they are keeping with the other ‘animals’ out in the barn.
If you’re looking for clear cut answers to amazingly vile issues, don’t count on The Woman for clarification. It’s Dogtooth for the direct to DVD crowd. This is a movie made up of inferences and allusions, not explanations or outright claims. More a peek inside the seemingly sick Cleek family than a film about the rape and retaliation of the title character, we spend so much time watching the weird, wounded looks on the faces of this oddball family that we just know something sinister is going on beneath the surface. Yet instead of showing us the truth, instead of talking about incest, abuse, and other awful secrets, director Lucky McKee suggests. He never spells things out but simply leaves out the pile of letters and lets us put two and two together. As with the unseen creature just beneath the surface, our sullied imagination can concoct some pretty frightening stuff.
One is instantly reminded of another concrete classic - David Lynch’s dizzying Twin Peaks - while watching The Woman. There is the same skewed tone, the same evil within the everyday dynamic. Yet McKee is not out to mimic the master. Instead, he finds his own bizarro beats to champion, choosing to take the audience on a ride it can neither prepare for nor anticipate. As the dread grows and the inevitability rises, we wonder if things can get even more unreal…and then the last twenty minutes slap us full in the face. It’s almost as if the film wants us to be aware of how unconventional it really is, all while maintaining enough of a connection to some concept of reality that we are willing to stand by and watch.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially from the core group of McIntosh, Bridgers, Bettis and Carter. We sense the feminist undertones here, the pathetic patriarchal dictator destroying his family from the inside while the women suffer…and wait. The feral female clearly represents the animalistic need to break free and rebel, to take Daddy down several significant steps in a violent revolution of role reversal perspective, and McIntosh illustrates this among the grunts and shrieks. She’s ‘sympathetic’ to Peggy’s problem and ‘warns’ Belle about being a better mom. As the cultured crazy, Bridgers brings just enough normalcy to keep us connected. When he goes bonkers, it makes the transformation all the more unsettling.
Yet McKee really shine here, taking charge and showing significant growth behind the lens. There are times when the use of music is so enigmatic that we lose track of where we are in the story. Then the filmmaker plays with elements like juxtaposition and jump cuts to really unnerve us. The overall experience is both scary and satiric. There are aspects of bleak, black comedy as well, moments when we can’t help but laugh at the lunacy involved. After all, this is a movie where a seemingly respected member of the community keeps an animalistic woman in his cellar..and that doesn’t even broach the other issues involved (or possibly involved). Thanks to the numerous questions it leaves unanswered, The Woman becomes more than sleaze or schlock. It transcends, and becomes brilliant.
So, yes, The Woman does end up an ersatz exploitation-ish excuse for entertainment where an untamed human falls under the near-fatal spell of supposed ‘normals.’ It offers sexual disgraces and personal perversion. But it also casts a wide conceptual berth which ends up bearing tremendous fruit. As horror films go, it’s obvious and odd. We get the shivers and the necessary bloodletting along the way, but there’s always more. As an amalgamation, however, a weird work of warped social commentary and genuine genius, it’s stellar. You may think you know this kind of movie already. The truth is, you do…and then you really, really don’t. That’s what makes The Woman such a devious delight.