Just when I thought it couldn’t get more offensive than ‘Dead Girl’, here comes Lucky McKee’s ‘The Woman’. Ugh.
‘The Woman’ is the story of the Cleek family and a decision made by the patriarch of the family that changes all of them forever. Some of them will learn open their hearts and to let love soar again. Ok, no, that doesn’t happen at all. What does transpire is an excessive amount of ‘here’s my message’ interjected with exploitative nudity and violence.
Based off a series of books by Jack Ketchum with McKee co-writing this one as well, ‘The Woman’ is the story of a feral woman, and what happens when a male-dominated family decides to take her in (by force) and ‘civilize’ her. How this comes to pass is that one day the father of this family is out hunting. While looking through his scope he spots a woman; wild and covered in muck as she bathes. He is overtaken by her naked body and you can see the lust written all over his face. That night he goes home and has his family prepare the root cellar for his newest ‘surprise’. Soon he’s captured the woman and has her bound and chained in the basement. His family, the victim of his oppressive ways decide to go along with his plan to civilize this woman in an attempt to….well the movie really never gets to that part of it.
This film is the sequel to two previous novels and one film adaptation. Those stories were about a pack of feral cannibals that hunted and murdered innocent people along the coast of Maine. ‘The Woman’ alludes to and even stars the eponymous character from the previous film, however also seems to be a stand-alone film. Never in the film or in the press was this really spoken of as a sequel so I can assume we are to take this as it’s own beast. If we look at it in the context of the previous stories we can gather that this one is the tale of how civilized people can be just as wild and demonic as the feral clan could be. But based on the fact that it doesn’t seem to want us to base this off the previous work, we just see this as a story of what happens when a man is a disgusting pig and controls both the women of his family and his pet project. I think this is another film that has an interesting premise, something that truly under the right hand and direction could make its statement but doing so without beating us over the head.
The biggest problem of this film is that it can’t find a coherent tone at all. At times it wants to be a dark underbelly suburban horror, like that of David Lynch. But then it also thinks it is a satire and much more clever than it really is. The father, played by Sean Bridges (who looks and acts like Will Ferrell), plays the role in a sort of wink-wink way. The film never really knows who it wants to focus on as its main character, so you are left with vignettes going between pity (for the women of the family) and disgust (for the father and son). We are made to feel influenced to gasp in horror and repulsion as we watch the woman get sprayed down fully naked with a power washer, or get knocked around by the father, when he slips out of the house late at night to rape her, or even have her nipple ripped off with pliers by the son. McKee isn’t a stupid director and it shows exactly what he wants this movie to do; which is to shock you. Unfortunately he undercuts himself every step of the way.
Take for instance the first scene after the father has kidnapped the woman. He’s ogling her, running his hands over her body, until he fishes his fingers into her mouth to get a look at her teeth, only for her to (shocker here) wake up and chew his finger off, her defiant eyes glaring him down as she chews and then swallows it, spitting out his wedding ring to the floor. Instead of screaming in pain, he kind of winces a bit, washes the finger off, downs some pills, and then he is good to go. No worry about what his family will think or any real mention other than ‘watch out, she likes to bite’. I think Mckee wants this scene to play for dark laughs, but it isn’t funny, it’s just lame, and betrays any real sort of seriousness to the message he is trying to make with this film.
The message he is going for is not at all hidden and you can see the subtext with blatant ease. I’m going to go into that in just a moment, however before I do I want to say this as a bit of a caveat. The way this film is presented and the pretention of its message makes me feel uncomfortable even to speak about it. Not that I can’t and won’t but I feel part of the directors actions with this film is to flat out force you to believe that what you read into this film are the hang-ups or pretext you have, not what he’s done. I feel like he wants you to be ashamed for what you think of HIS message and if you don’t like the movie it’s because you are the one who has the problem. The more I think about that, the more this movie pisses me off.
What the film seems to say is this: men are bad. All men are capable and deep down wanting, to be able to control women to the point of submission. That all men treat women as if they were nothing more than feral animals that they can tame or forcefully mold into what they want. Some have argued that this is not what McKee is saying, but that it is just a portrait for a deranged man and the effect of a father’s influence on his son, how the cycle of abuse is passed down like a genetic trait, and on and on. However, if this was just a portrait of one man representing how some men are like this, than it is strange to me that there is not one positive male character in the film at all. The father and son in this movie are both portrayed to be vile and base creatures that will rape and torture a woman and the drop of hat. They are both happy in the status of lords of the household as the female family members are easily provoked to do the bidding of these two. The women are all made to be sympathetic characters and unable to break free from the chains of the phallic kingdom of men, until the woman comes along and shows them how to figuratively break free from their chains by her example. The Woman is demeaned and degraded but never does she submit to the will of the man. Even while bound and raped she still hold the fierce gaze that says ‘I’m in control’. The woman is in tune with the middle daughter and somehow is able to see and tell her (how and when did she learn to talk) that she knows she is pregnant. It all comes down to the idea that men are all oppressive to women and still cling to some sort of ingrained reflex to have a need to control woman that they view as weak, or as the father calls them ‘leeches and sluts’.
The movie features long and lingering shots of the nude body of the woman, and this feels like it is directed only to the men in the audience. As if McKee is forcing you to think bad thoughts and condemning you by his method of voyeurism, placing you in the role of the lustful father character. And that is cheap and an unfair assumption to place upon your audience. Do I think the message that some men still treat women as property and something to be changed and how to break that cycle is an important message? Yes, I definitely do, and no better genre than horror to do it in, as horror can tackle uneasy subjects and bring a levity to the issue. However, ‘The Woman’ fails miserably at doing it. I do not appreciate being accused of something based on the bias of the creator of the property. McKee is a male director and has focused much of his career in film on social views of women. While that is not a bad thing at all, with this film he’s gone above and beyond into the realm of ridiculousness. To judge an entire gender feels like an awful lot of finger pointing and makes me feel like he is chastising all men that aren’t, in his eyes, elevated to his level of female understanding. If I was a woman I sure would feel a bit annoyed by another man claiming to understand the plight of women as much as McKee claims to. I’m a huge supporter of women’s rights, I believe women should be seen as equals to me. I don’t think women should be held down by some sort of gender role that society has placed them in for thousands of years. If a man can’t accept and love a woman for who she is without trying to control her than he really isn’t much of a man. At the same time it is an egregious error to lump all men into a category of chauvinist pigs and as creatures who only want to fight and hump. This film is offensive, not in its gore or message, it is offensive in the execution of what it is trying to be.
The Good: A strong performance by Pollyanna McIntosh as ‘the woman’ and Angela Bettis as the mother.
The Bad: a horribly botched message punctuated by a film that wants to shock you but doesn’t. Terrible music throughout. A truly stupid twist ending that makes no sense and disregards any weight of the situation it’s played through the entire film.
Worth a rent: I’d say no to this one. If you are a fan of McKee you might like this, and I will give the film credit for trying to go beyond the typical plot and try something a little more daring. I just wish it would have done it better.