THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Lucky McKee's The Woman gained some notoriety earlier this year, when video of an irate viewer being removed from a Sundance Film Festival screening hit YouTube. McKee, who also made the deliriously creepy May, has described himself as a feminist filmmaker, and indeed, his movies usually center around female characters. They also tend to be rather extreme, so that, when misunderstood (as the guy in the YouTube video clearly demonstrates), they provoke strong negative emotions. If you like mamby-pamby horror – i.e. pointless Hollywood “reboots,” watered-down PG-13 fare – then you'd better run as far away as possible from any theater showing The Woman. On the other hand, if you are willing to be taken to the edge of horror, this is a picture you'll want to pay attention to.
Sean Bridgers plays Chris Cleek, a country lawyer who lives with his family in a beautiful rural farmhouse. While out hunting one afternoon, he finds a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, in a remarkably brave performance) living in the wilderness. Chris captures her and brings her back home, where he chains her up in the basement. He then informs his family that they are going to “civilize” her. His definition of “civilizing” means keeping her restrained, washing her off with a tool never meant to be used on humans, and even raping her. The other members of the Cleek family have differing reactions. Wife Belle (Angela Bettis) is horrified, but scared to stand up to Chris. (The Woman is not the only female he abuses.) Teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is also horrified; she's carrying a secret that makes her afraid to get in her father's cross-hairs, too. Pre-teen son Brian (Zach Rand) is eager for Chris's approval, so he tries to impress with his own displays of cruelty. Papa is quite proud of his boy. Eventually, things become harder to contain, especially once Peggy's concerned teacher begins poking around.
Right now, you may be asking yourself, “Why would I ever want to see something like this?” And that would be a perfectly valid question. It's important to make clear that the film always sides with the Woman. Chris's abuse of her is never glamorized. It is Lucky McKee's intention to make us feel for this strange, animalistic woman – and to despise the reprehensible, barbaric, and misogynist ways of Chris Cleek. There is strong irony in the fact that a man who wants to civilize a feral woman is, in fact, far less civilized than she is.
The Woman is ultimately an examination of abuse: how people justify it to themselves, get off on it, and teach it to others. It is also a story that advocates women standing up against their abusers. While Chris may be appalled by a feral woman in the wilderness, she isn't harming anyone. She is just living her life, minding her own business. He insists on imposing his will upon her, oblivious to the fact that her rage against him is growing. Underneath the abuse theme is another one dealing with self-righteousness. Who is Chris Cleek to decide what is best for this woman, or for his wife and daughter for that matter? What gives him the right to take the moral high ground and make decisions for them? He talks about his actions as if he's operating under some moral imperative, but it's one he has created for himself and forced upon others. That is what makes him truly a monster.
Does The Woman need to be as brutal and violent as it is to address these themes? No, but Lucky McKee makes horror films and he's chosen that canvas on which to work. He wants to make you face the ugliness that is abuse, so that you can't look away from it, can't pretend it doesn't exist. I respect that. The film is undeniably disturbing, yet it is that way for a valid artistic reason. Even in the insanely vicious final twenty minutes, where acts of brutality seem to top themselves every few seconds, there is a purpose being served. Bad men do horrible, cruel, hurtful things to women. Women should fight back, by any means necessary.
A few things could have been improved upon. There's a weird out-of-nowhere twist near the end that is never explained and seems a bit arbitrary. The final shot is also a tad underwhelming. It tries to be ambiguous, which I like, but also doesn't give you enough to base a conclusion on.
Despite that, I liked The Woman (and I feel a little icky for using the word “like” in this case). It fulfills the criteria by which I judge good horror movies: “Is it horrific?” Yes, it is. I've really only hinted at much of what transpires, so be warned that freaky, extreme, shocking, stomach-churning things happen. You may be offended or repulsed. But hey, that's what the abuse of women is like. And that's why we should never tolerate it.
( out of four)
The DVD contains a 28-minute "making of" feature that is quite interesting. McKee and co-writer Jack Ketchum talk about the choices that went into telling this story. We also see how some of the grisly special effects were accomplished. Amusingly, the set for Chris Cleek's cellar was built inside a high school gymnasium. (How's that for low budget ingenuity?) The on-set footage additionally reveals that the production was fun and friendly, despite the intense nature of the material.
You will also find a small handful of deleted scenes, a music track for Sean Spillane's song "Distracted," and the short film "Mi Burro."
The Woman is rated R for strong bloody violence, torture, a rape, disturbing behavior, some graphic nudity, and language . The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.