Review for The Woman
Dir: Lucky McKee (2011)
"That is not… civilised behaviour".
The Woman arrives on UK shores riding a wave of both controversy and scorn. Typically, conservative critics have offered the usual dribbling, reactionary opinion that it's misogynistic, though many have pointed towards it being a condemnation of that very attitude. Either way, it's certainly a confrontational, arresting piece of work.
Chris Cleek is a lawyer, a father of three and husband to wife, Belle. Among the urchins, Peggy is a teenager dealing with her untimely pregnancy, while Brian is a detached youth. Whilst hunting in the woods, Chris encounters a feral woman bathing in his sights. At first it appears he's going to shoot her, but instead he hatches a plan to kidnap her. When he does, he chains her up, but has the tip of his finger bitten off and seems to rise to the challenge of "taming" her. Chris introduces the family to his catch in a disturbingly straight-forward fashion, as if he is hoping to discuss something more akin to having pocket-money cut until more chores are done. Cleek's manner in which he achieves his objectives though, involves rape, torture, and humiliation. As they attempt to deal with her, his actions, and those of his son, threaten the entire family, It becomes increasingly obvious that there is something completely rotten at the core of this family and this incident could destroy them…
Being that the film is adapted from a Jack Ketchum novel (completed along with McKee) fans of his work may well know what to expect. Ketchum's catalogue of the grotesque has seen him hailed as a purveyor of tremendous, visceral modern horror, or as Stephen King has asked, "who's the scariest man in America? Probably Jack Ketchum." But he has also been vilified by some critics, and had to face staunch opposition who have been outraged by his approach. His controversial works include "Ladies' Night", "Lost", and "Only Child". But he is perhaps most famously known for "The Girl Next Door", a horrendous story inspired by true events about the abuse of a young girl. In 2007 it was adapted into a gripping film, marking it as perhaps Ketchum's most famous work.
Although The Woman stands alone, it can be taken as a sequel to "Offspring", itself an adaptation of a Ketchum book. In his literary cannon, "Offspring" and "The Woman" continue a trilogy begun with his debut novel, 1980's "Off-Season".
There's a level of satire and social commentary at work in this that will both confound many, but also infuriate others. Chris Cleek's mean-spirited, deplorable misogyny extends to his wife, his own daughter, and a concerned teacher, who simple calls to the house, concerned for her pregnant student.
The lead character is a hard-working, well-liked, family man, but at the same time, an utterly disgusting, horrendous example of a human being. He treats a person like an mindless beast, apparently believing his actions to be in the right. Like many a person in privileged society, he believes that he has the right to decide that her lifestyle is for him to judge, and his opinion on the matter is the last word. Sure, the woman has not chosen her life- she was born into her primitive ways, but even if she had, the disdain and disregard shown towards her for being different, is utterly depraved. Not for a moment does he consider his actions to be worthy of doubt, as he launches into his repugnant plan with glee and a self-indulgent sense of righteousness. When he first introduces his family to the woman whom he has captured, there's an uncomfortable humour at work in such a unit gawping at a defenceless woman. Cleek doesn't just condemn the feral nature of the woman and her behaviour, his condemnation is centred around the fact that she's a woman who dares to depart from his interpretation of her role in society. There's also a hypocrisy at work in his demented sexual desire for the girl that further condemns him as the epitome of all that is wrong with the macho, conventional attitudes of old, that now fester in the modern world as bubbling, hate-filled resentment.
Sean Bridgers is authentically repulsive in the lead role, exhibiting a self-righteous certainty that defies belief. He isn't the only standout though: Pollyanna McIntosh conveys a ferocious charisma as the unfortunate woman, and a terrifying aptitude for the feral in the climatic scenes. Her snarling is matched however by the babbling ineptitude of Belle Cleek, a long suffering woman who borders on the invisible, except when she's of use to the male, patriarchal figure.
Clearly, the family depicted in "The Woman", is dysfunctional . Son Brian, exhibits an oddball longing and lust, not just for his savage house-guest, but in becoming the sort of upstanding man that his father is. When he abuses her, his father refuses to condemn the actions, instead dismissing it as "boys will be boys". It's a sickening observation. Disturbingly, when his wife reports the actions to him, the violence and torture that the son commits is not an issue- it's the sexual aspect, again underling the misguided roles and behaviour demonstrated within this family unit. The women of the group at least, display a degree of care and compassion for the woman, as Belle attempts to tend to her and nurse her, and Peggy is affected by her awareness of her own pregnancy. But it's to no avail, after all, they are largely subservient, and secondary to the real leaders of this pack.
Much has been made of the obtrusive, eclectic, occasionally pounding soundtrack, but it certainly works in an ironic fashion. Dreamlike snippets of David Lynch's aesthetic haunt the mother of the family, Belle, as she stumbles about vacantly, with Sixties-style Juke-Box sounds surrounding her apparently chemically enhanced state. The impressive nuances however, extend to beyond the soundtrack- The Woman is an extremely impressive looking piece of work, and for a lower-budget horror picture, it certainly looks, ahem, a cut above. McKee films his violence in an unflinching manner, but it is far from lingering or exploitative. Meanwhile, several more sensitive moments are dealt with in a deft fashion, and do linger, when needs be.
Extras on this home video release, available on both standard DVD, and on Blu-Ray are perhaps unsurprisingly, of the straightforward variety.
A Making of Documentary is way too short at fifteen minutes. Most frustrating is that some of the contributions from key cast and crew members indicate that their could be much more to say on the matter. Particularly of interest are the observations of Ketchum and some of the philosophical musings of the cast look interesting, but then again, they aren't given enough time here to say anything of substance. The best stuff manifests in a look at the sound mixing for the film, but one can only wish that this had been explored at much greater length.
Meet the Makers is an intriguing-looking TV-spot style piece, that introduces some of key creative forces, in the rather stingy setting of a three minute documentary. Oh, and it some of the same chatter from the main making of documentary. Aside from padding out the list of features on the cover art, why bother, eh?
This release also includes Deleted Scenes that total five minutes of material. Nothing earth-shattering, but certainly worth a look, and a welcome inclusion.
Rounding out the extra material is a track by Sean Spillane from the Soundtrack, and Mi Burro, a short animated film by McKee. The bonus features read much better than they are in execution. Flimsy? Very much so.
As with "The Girl Next Door", The Woman is an effective portrayal of fundamentally dysfunctional small-town suburbia. Not just the family, not just the neighbours, but the whole insular, self-indulgent, and incestuous concept. It's more sophisticated and accomplished than it's predecessor though, and as such is arguably more elusive. Obviously it doesn't carry the weight of being a true story though, and is ultimately less harrowing, but that certainly isn't to suggest it is a film without merit. Both are nonetheless, extraordinary examples of the mind of Ketchum, and have a genuine, raw power.
The Woman is not a traditional horror film, but it is one of the most horrific films of the year. Most unsettling of all, is that in the underbelly of society, there are Chris Cleeks' hiding everywhere.