CKF ON THE EDGE
THE WOMAN Is Not for the Faint of Heart
Movie review by John Harvey
THE WOMAN is an extremely disturbing, emotionally-draining film that you should not recommend to friends lightly, or without a great deal of preparation. Even if a particular friend boasts casual ease at viewing franchise extreme horror (think SAW and HOSTEL), you still need to explain to them “Oh no … this is something else entirely.”
On that note, though you probably have not seen THE WOMAN, you might be familiar with the controversy surrounding the film’s premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. In a nutshell, at the tail end of the showing, a man in the audience was so entirely offended by the film’s subject matter that he went a bit nuts and had to be escorted out of the theater. You can see the videos (which went spectacularly viral) here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Frliyp33sM and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3lUAZLB4JY.
Aside from handing the film a massive amount of free publicity, it’s also obvious that this man didn’t get the film at all. THE WOMAN, written by Jack Ketchum and Lucky McKee (who also directed), tells the story about a brutal, sadistic psychopath of the most terrifying sort (one who blends into our society) and the women he abuses and oppresses at home. Outwardly, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) is a successful and well-liked elder care and estate lawyer in northern New England, but it becomes clear pretty early on that he’s not wired like your average upper-middle class husband and father.
Cleek goes hunting near his home one day and encounters a feral Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh in an amazing and savage performance) washing herself in the river. He’s aroused in all the wrong ways, and quickly forms a plan. Once back home, he “remodels” the root cellar near his barn and cheerily tells his family he’s got a surprise for them. His family also gives off a strong whiff of being completely broken, but hiding it for appearance’s sake. The wife, Belle (Angela Bettis who also starred in McKee’s MAY (2002)), and daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) exist essentially as cowed and helpless prisoners. Both actresses give great performances. I’m not sure if this is a compliment, but nobody gives you twitchy and train wrecked like Bettis. Cleek’s son, Brian (Zach Rand), on the other hand is … well … definitely his father’s son.
Once Chris and his family complete modifying the root cellar, Cleek pulls the cover back on his surprise: he traps the feral Woman and manacles her in the basement. Why? The family has a new project. They’re going to “fix her.” Of course, Chris Cleek’s concept of “fixing” has little to do with rehabilitation in any rational sense.
At this turn of events, the film begins to pick up a tone that verges on the absurd. Though not in a winking-at-the-audience, pandering sense. Ultimately, this movie frames the real horror of abuse by magnifying the scale and outcomes by a factor of a thousand. Though, one could point to multiple news stories about men who’ve trapped women and kept them locked up for weeks, months, or even years of torture, and argue that perhaps it isn’t absurd so much as it’s that rare horror movie that actually portrays abuse as stomach-turning and emotionally sickening. As opposed to most franchise extreme horror, where elaborate violence has become light entertainment.
And this is the point in the film where McKee really starts to gradually ratchet up the tension and discomfort levels. And though Chris Cleek is already revealed as a monster and a sociopath, McKee continues to show more and more about his (and his son’s) depravity to the point where it becomes oppressive. Also, it becomes obvious to the more thoughtful viewer that McKee and Ketchum have a feminist streak a mile wide. Though men in the film do horrible things to the women almost continuously, it’s not done with the titillating (and in some cases, just plain dirty) sensibility of the old sexploitation films of the 1970s. Rather, McKee and Ketchum exponentially exaggerate the disparity of power between men and women in this movie, and therefore the crime and horror that sources from that disparity.
The amazing thing is that throughout most of the film, there’s very little gore and flying buckets of blood. Now, be forewarned that this changes drastically in the film’s last half hour. But up until that point, McKee and Ketchum manage to disturb on the most profound level without resorting to the gross-out shots. This may sound odd with regards to a movie that is so profoundly brutal, but it’s an elegant way to make a horror film. Another elegant touch is that the movie manages, in a few strategically-placed scenes, to be distressingly funny. Distressing because, in most films, humor is used to diffuse tension, while in THE WOMAN the humor makes the film that much darker.
It should be noted that if you see THE WOMAN, you may come under the impression that you’ve missed some plot points. The fact is that THE WOMAN is a sequel to OFFSPRING (2009), a film that was also based on Jack Ketchum’s book of the same name. If you haven’t seen or read OFFSPRING, then you won’t have any problems following THE WOMAN, but there’s a few scenes in THE WOMAN that make a little more sense if you’re aware of the story that preceded it.
THE WOMAN is a film that will polarize both reviewers and rank-and-file audience members alike. I’d argue that THE WOMAN is not suitable for wide, general audiences. The fact is that most moviegoers don’t want to be profoundly disturbed and uncomfortable when they leave the cinema. They want to be entertained. And this is why McKee is the first person to admit that he’s got no future in commercial films with major studios. But if you are the sort of person who likes their horror films to adhere to the literal definition of the word “horror,” then THE WOMAN was made for you.
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© Copyright 2011 by John D. Harvey