Lucky McKee’s The Woman always looked like it had the potential to be controversial. A much publicised YouTube video showing an enraged man being escorted out of a Sundance post-screening Q&A while calling for the film print to be burnt has garnered more than 100,000 hits (you can’t buy publicity like that). Having seen The Woman, I can report that this is not the new A Serbian Film. The Woman has a provocative premise, and is a tough watch, but it is a far more palatable film that has a rich seam of dark humour and satire running through it.
Respectable upper middle-class lawyer, family man, and pillar of the community Chris Cleek (Bridgers) discovers a feral woman (McIntosh) in the woods while hunting alone. He traps her, takes her home and chains her up in the basement. He then embarks on a mission to “civilise” her as if she where a wild dog that needed to be broken. Cleek does not keep the presence of the woman secret from his family; he takes them down into the basement and unveils her like she is a Christmas present. Cleek’s wife Belle meekly accepts her husband’s new project, while his eldest daughter Peggy is clearly troubled (but has her own problems at school). More disturbing is the reaction of son Brian, a blank faced boy prone to putting gum in girl’s hairbrushes, Brian fixates on The Woman in a way that is clearly unhealthy.
There is no point beating around the bush, The Woman is a graphic film featuring some scenes of sexualised violence. However these are not gratuitous and not shot with a prurient focus on the erotic. The Woman is shocking, but necessarily so. The film is inventively shot by director McKee who takes this potentially gruelling story and films it in a fashion that is full of invention in both camera work and editing. There is a very unusual musical score by Sean Spillane that is largely song based. Often the songs on the soundtrack seem jarringly inappropriate, as in the bluesy hip-grinding boogie rock that is used when Cleek first spots The Woman washing herself in a river. The music seems to represent the interior monologue of Cleek and the sexual thrill and power trip that seems to lie behind his actions.
Despite the title, the horror in The Woman is not the feral cannibal in the basement. Instead the horror is paternal abuse within a family unit. It is clear from early on that there is something fundamentally wrong with Chris Cleek – his obvious delight in capturing a human being and treating her in a fashion that, if she were an animal, would invite prosecution by PETA. An early, apparently innocuous scene in which his wife rolls his cigarettes for him, becomes chilling in retrospect as the family's dysfunctions become apparent. The cold heart of this is the relationship between Cleek and his son Brian, a portrait of how a boy learns to become an abuser by example. The Woman is a timely reminder at a time when the right is again trying to demonise single parent families, that the social norm can be a smokescreen hiding a multitude of problems.
This is a prime example of what John Carpenter has called “left wing” horror. Right wing horror narratives see the established social order being attacked from elements that exist outside of it. Most slasher films are right wing horror. Left wing horror sees the social order itself as corrupt, and the evil comes from within. The Woman is a film from the progressive edge of the genre, an exploration of misogyny, paternal abuse and middle class double standards taken to violent extremes.
The standard of performance is extraordinarily high for a genre film. Bridgers delivers one of the creepiest portraits of middle class insanity since Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather (1987), and yet he is also charming. As the meek wife, Bettis breathes life into what could have been an annoying character, her helplessness is convincing. Carter and Molhusen are also good as the elder and younger daughter, Carter subtly suggesting a young girl withdrawing into herself and Molhusen as the picture of innocence too young to understand or have become a victim. Rand is chilling as the son, a blank eyed little sadist. However it is Scottish actress McIntosh who takes the honours, her performance as The Woman is an intense piece of physical acting, she cannot speak English, communicating by guttural animalistic grunts and growls and occasionally talking in her own language. McIntosh manages to deftly convey exactly what the character is thinking, and even though she spends most of the film in chains, she is magnetically terrifying. Normally a performance this striking would attract awards talk (she’s much better than Jodie Foster in Nell) but it’s a genre film, so it won’t.
Technically this is a sequel to an earlier film Offspring (2009) directed by The Woman’s producer Andrew van der Houten. Offspring itself was a film of the literary sequel to cult novelist Jack Ketchum’s notorious horror novel Off Season. The Woman however completely works as a standalone film. The Woman is easily one of 2011’s outstanding horror films: bold, uncompromising, harrowing and challenging.