The Woman is troubling in many respects. On the one hand it deals in cautionary morality tales based on serious subjects like domestic abuse and misogyny. On the other hand it traffics in abuse and taboo-violence as a form of entertainment. I’m not entirely convinced director Lucky McKee knows why this could possibly be problematic.
I cautiously accept that various ‘70s exploitation films which mined taboo for thrills were industry-leaders. They were breaking rules for the sheer pleasure of breaking rules, though I believe in terms of end-goals ticket sales came first, social commentary a distant second. The problem with exploitation in the modern age, especially in terms of rape/revenge dramas, is that there doesn’t seem to be much more to explore. Most of the pleasure is derived from watching the brutality of murderous revenge rather than the imparting of any kind of moral wisdom. That’s probably why modern attempts at the rape/revenge genre have been mostly relegated to pointless remakes like I Spit On Your Grave or Last House On The Left.
The Woman succumbs to some of these dilemmas, though it would be a disservice to call it a run-of-the-mill, one-dimensional rape/revenge film as there is a considerable amount of thematic smarts going on that is apparent from the first time we meet our characters. The Cleek family are the all-American middle class dream. They own their own plot of land, ride ATVs, go hunting and occasionally mingle at neighborhood BBQs. In the opening sequence that sets up everything we need to know (and everything the film has to say, really) we see the father order his subservient wife around with cloying smugness while the eldest son impassively observes a gang of boys bully a young girl. Later on he reveals a secret to his dad about his elder sister Peggy’s choice of boyfriends. The family dynamic is skewed towards patriarch loyalty, though the degree to which female members of the family are marginalised is only hinted at in these opening scenes; the true nature of their relationships, which is delivered with creeping suspense by McKee, is shocking in it’s implications.
These taught alliances are put under threat once the father discovers a feral woman (played by an awesomely out-there Pollyanna McIntosh) living in a nearby forest, and subsequently decides to kidnap and chain her up in his backyard shack. There is a moment when he asks the rest of his family (including his youngest daughter who can’t be more than 10 years-old) to view his prized capture where it seems like the film is taking place in an allegorical reality where this wouldn’t seem strange. The film continues down this path for a good while and appears to work.
When the father (played to villainous conviction by Sean Bridgers) vows to “domesticate” the woman and bring her back to civility (political allusions abound), his timid wife Belle (Angela Bettis) reluctantly agrees. But of course his intentions were never as scientific, and soon his treatment of her turns to abuse of both the physical and sexual kind, all in full view of the rest of his family. McKee’s visual sense is smart enough to know not to be unnecessarily explicit, but his insistence on using pop-rock soundtracks during a few key, troubling scenes undermines the severity of these moments. The layering of emo-acoustic lyricism over images of non-consensual sex for example is frustratingly glib, and it’s tough to know whether this is McKee trying to make the scenes more palatable, or if he really just thinks this is an effective way to convey torment. Even worse, is he trying for dark humour? I find the latter two too troubling to believe.
When Peggy’s concerned teacher comes to check in on the family and the confrontations come to a head, the third act arrives like a punch to the gut. McKee switches to steadicam after having relied on static frames for much of the runtime, and one particular shot that revolves around two characters for a lengthy period of time had a physically queasy effect on me.
Though as technically powerful as it is, The Woman mostly left me feeling uneasy at it’s interpretation of female empowerment being violence as a response to violence. The Woman’s ultimate role is revealed as a primordial balancing force, restoring the voice and position the women in the Cleek family had been denied. It’s just a shame that the metaphor is tailor made for revenge-based entertainment, and is of little use outside that fairytale realm onscreen.
I found much more interesting thematic interplay at work in Lars Von Trier’s gritty misogyny-study Antichrist, and it doesn’t help that The Woman’s plot feels like a retread of the 2008 indie-horror Deadgirl. Still, operating at a much more ambitious level than 95% of the horror films currently out there, this is unmissable for fans of the genre. It was certainly one of the best of Frightfest.