Archive for July 17, 2011

The Woman

July 17, 2011

After the Sundance screening last January of Lucky McKee’s The Woman, a man stood up and denounced the film, saying that it should be banned and burned. In other words, intentionally or not, the man was saying that the movie works, and does what a horror movie is supposed to do, which, last time I checked, is to horrify. The Woman isn’t nonstop gore and violence — there’s some, largely towards the end, but for the most part the moments of grue are carefully parceled out. The true horror in the film is what people are capable of doing to other people, under the guise of being model citizens. The monster here is not a masked slasher but an amiable-seeming husband and father of three, with a respectable job and a well-kept house. The house, of course, is out in the boonies where nobody’s watching.

This character, Chris Cleek (a powerhouse performance by Sean Bridgers), is the most contemptible excuse for a man I’ve seen in a movie in years. Even before the horrors start, we can see that he’s got his family under his thumb, and that he’s raising his only son (Zach Rand) to be a callous sociopath just like Dad. His wife (Angela Bettis, who wowed horror fans in McKee’s debut May) has seen a lot but chooses to say nothing. His older daughter (Lauren Ashley Carter) seems hunched over with the weight of awful secrets in her stomach. This is a grim family even before Chris discovers the Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) out in the woods. She is feral, filthy, covered in a mix of blood from herself and from her animal prey. Chris checks her out, then makes a decision. She’ll do.

The Woman spends most of the film painfully tied up in the Cleeks’ cellar, and she becomes a lightning rod for whatever raw emotions the family members are feeling; she represents primitivism, cutting through the crap and the repression of the household’s breakdown of civilization. In a way, she’s like Clint Eastwood’s anti-hero in High Plains Drifter, kicking up the dust that has settled over the lies. Terrible things are done to the Woman, but McKee doesn’t rub our faces in it; I’d say a good 90% of the film is admirably restrained in terms of what it makes us look at. It works by suggestion, metaphor, and emotional violence, the very notion of cruelty.

Why, then, did that man rise and scream about the film? Because, again emotionally, it takes us where few horror films do. It does not show you disgusting things in order to prove how disgusting those things are. It shows you a disgusting situation that many of us have experienced or witnessed helplessly — the abused, frightened wife, the terrorized children, the smug, entitled husband who knows he can get away with anything because he always has. McKee is not saying that all men are like this, any more than he’s saying that all women are like the Woman. It helps to know that the Woman has been around before, in two novels by this film’s co-writer Jack Ketchum, about a cannibal clan. The Woman is one of them, and in this stand-alone story she gets waylaid by Chris Cleek and learns that there’s an even sicker family than the one she ran with.

McKee takes his time; there are many sobering fades to black. Cinematically, he keeps us on edge right from the start. There’s a wince-inducing moment when Chris fires a gun near the Woman’s ear, and the soundtrack drops out except for a high-pitched whine. Most of the violence is impressionistic, as if the movie were averting its own gaze; but when we need catharsis at the end, McKee brings it. This is a serious-minded horror film with a quietly intense performance by Pollyanna McIntosh as the Woman, who can’t speak English but seems to possess an almost ancient understanding, a primal, atavistic, resigned awareness of what The Man is built to do to The Woman. She, of course, is from a primitive cannibal family, where gender relations haven’t evolved much. But what’s everyone else’s excuse?