The Woman (2011)
Directed by: Lucky McKee
Starring: Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis
Review by: Ben Bussey
Within a suprisingly short distance of one another exist what would appear to be two polar opposites of human life. The Cleek family live an affluent and comfortable existence in their beautiful ranch home, whilst in the woods nearby a feral woman (McIntosh) exists day-by-day as a scavenger. Out hunting one morning, family patriach Chris Cleek (Bridgers) finds the woman in his sights and decides to take her home. He captures her, chains her up in the fruit cellar, and informs his family that it is their duty to teach this woman how to be civilised. Whether Chris Cleek is in any position to demonstrate the real nature of a civilised human being is, of course, another matter entirely.
At the time of its announcement, I felt very conflicted about The Woman. On the one hand it was a collaboration between Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee, and involved Angela Bettis: this was a cause for great personal excitement, given that I regard Ketchum far and away the greatest horror novelist of our time – indeed, one of the great American writers full stop – and that McKee and Bettis’s May is one of my absolute favourite films of this century. On the other hand, this is ostensibly a follow-up to Offspring, Andrew van den Houten’s somewhat lacklustre screen adaption of what is easily Ketchum’s weakest novel. The idea of McKee and Ketchum working together on a story about wild cannibal people did not sit well, given that both artists seem at their best when dealing with very real human concerns in a realistic context. Happily (well, perhaps that isn’t the word I should be using), The Woman is certainly not just a cannibal movie. Nor should it really be regarded a sequel to van den Houten’s film; aside from the presence of Pollyanna McIntosh in the same role, this is very much a stand-alone film requiring no prior knowledge of Ketchum’s Off Season/Offspring universe (which is presumably why the title was shortened from Offspring: The Woman as originally planned). With distinct echoes of McKee and Ketchum’s respective masterworks, the aforementioned May and The Girl Next Door, this is an intensely atmospheric, intelligent, character-based tale of abuse, intimidation and inhumanity.
And let us just state this for the record: anyone who would consider this film misogynistic is, in no uncertain terms, an idiot. Yes, that means you, guy from Sundance. Though, as McKee wryly remarked in the Q&A, you can’t buy the kind of publicity that man has given them. (If you don’t know what I’m referring to, click here.)
To give a little personal perspective, as a husband and father I do worry from time to time that I might not be as strong a male role model as my children need. The great thing about The Woman is, it makes me step back and realise that my approach to parenting really isn’t that bad. After spending an untold portion of our lives watching tales of good guys and bad guys unfold on screens before us, we may from time to time become complacent, and feel like nothing can really shock or sicken us anymore. Then along comes a character like Chris Cleek; a smiling, outwardly friendly, seemingly ordinary man with such jaw-dropping cruelty within him. Intelligently, the film for most part shows not his abusive behaviour, but rather its reprecussions. From the first scene, we do not see Chris so much as shoot an angry look at his wife or children. Clearly, he does not need to. His wife (the ever-brilliant Bettis) remains softly spoken, obedient, and clearly terrified at all times. Their eldest daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter) keeps her distance and escapes into her iPod at every opportunity, whilst the youngest daughter is too little to see what’s going on. Then there’s the middle child, his son. Young actor Zach Rand was a particularly great find here, handling the difficult material with great maturity, conveying such cold, emotionless detachment; he’s almost like Christina Ricci’s Wednesday Addams, except not in the least bit funny. It’s a tremendous performance, almost as chilling as that of Sean Bridgers.
Then of course we have Pollyanna McIntosh as the woman herself. I’d be lying if I said her performance in Offspring made much impact; in the context of a cannibal children film, she rather blurred into the general savagery of proceedings. Here, as the wild woman taken out of her natural habitat, she is under a considerably tighter spotlight, and her performance is nothing less than a revelation. While there is no mistaking that the film’s sympathies lie with her and the family, it does not negate the brutality of which she too is capable. She endures much needless suffering, but she certainly inflicts her fair share of it as well, not all of which may we might deem justified.
This is absolutely a film which deals with cruelty and exploitation, but this of course does not mean that the film itself is cruel or exploitative, with onscreen violence for the most part kept to a minimum. Given the subject matter and content, it might be a surprise to some that the only element of the film I had any real objection to was the soundtrack. Not unlike May, there is a heavy emphasis on guitar and vocal-based indie rock, in this case mostly original songs from Sean Spillane. In terms of personal music taste I have objection to these songs whatsoever; there are some really nice tunes in there. What I’m less sure of is how appropriate they are in the context of this film. Oftentimes the songs and their lyrics feel very obtrusive and at odds with the images we are seeing. However, from more remarks of McKee’s after the screening, I get the impression this may well have been the point; further efforts made to challenge convention. God knows I’m glad not to have another shock-horror soundtrack full of corny jump scare noises, or another mournful piano-based score, so perhaps in time I may come to regard The Woman’s score a blessing.
And yes, I do think time is a consideration here. This I have no doubt is a film we will still be watching and talking about in years to come, and after a little time in the directorial trenches this should put Lucky McKee well and truly back on the radar of the greatest filmmakers working in horror today. It’s his finest film since May, the finest film of Jack Ketchum’s work yet, and though at the time of writing there are two days of films left I strongly suspect it will turn out to be the finest film of FrightFest 2011. In other words, make damn sure you don’t miss it.