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26, October 2011

The Woman

Director: Lucky McKee
Running Time: 101 min

Review by Delme Stephenson 

Originally shown at the Sundance film festival this year, ‘The Woman’ was received with controversy. It was branded as misogynistic and violently calculating. Reports that members of the audience walked out of the film on its premiere only added to its notoriety and reputation as a trashy torture-porn feature. Although I understand the controversy that surrounds this film, I believe its intentions have been misinterpreted by some of the larger industry publications. ‘The Woman’ is not only a disturbing and shocking horror film but one also trying to tackle real social issues. 

We meet the Cleek family at a peaceful social suburban gathering. From the outset we get a sense that there is something not quite right about successful country lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) and his family. The entire brood includes his wife, Belle (Angela Bettis), oldest daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), adolescent son Brian (Zach Rand) and youngest daughter Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). Each member of the family exhibit signs of minor psychological trauma (except Darlin’ who is seemingly too young and innocent). It’s not long before Chris captures a savage and seemingly feral woman played by Pollyanna McIntosh - whilst out hunting near his country estate. She is ‘The Woman’ of the piece and is promptly chained up against a wall in the Cleek garden shed where she is to be ‘civilised’. It is however, the family patriarch Chris who is in desperate need of being taught a lesson in civility. In time, the Woman manages to unearth the damaged psyches that the family have kept hidden under Chris’ sociopathic leadership. Will it be too late to keep the family together? 

Director Lucky McKee and screenwriter Jack Ketchum, upon whose book the film is based, have created a horror film that is both undeniably frightening and brutally painful. The treatment of the Woman by certain members of the Cleek clan is almost shockingly unbearable. Yet this is not just a horror film. It mixes social commentary, drama and very dark humour with its horror elements to become something different entirely. As such there is considerable method exercised behind the camera. In McKee’s grimy visceral vision; the notion of trying to domesticate a feral woman tears the idea of the traditional suburban family apart. This idea in itself is not original; suburbia was never the same again after David Lynch was finished with it in ‘Blue Velvet’. But while that film explored the theme of surfaces, exteriors and what lies beneath with masterly depth, ‘The Woman’ absorbs some of Lynch’s eccentricity but does not have the same impact. It does however work well on another level. The film’s main theme is to address the issue of misogyny and it does well in this regard. In many instances the director shoots from a character’s point-of-view as they look upon the Woman, and she in turn, glares angrily back at the camera. She is of course looking at us, signalling the viewer. The Woman is aware of the male sexual gaze or the intentions of other characters, but it is through this technique that McKee allows us to understand the full-scale impact of the male-female bond.  However, to suggest this film lightly touches on the subject of misogyny or even worse uses it to propel the horror element, which some critics have indicated, absolutely baffles me. This film blatantly condemns misogyny and explores the many ways in which it is perpetuated and maintained. Male and female characters are both criticised for their actions, or in some cases for the lack of them.     

As an independent film the production values are obviously not on the same scale as the latest Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganza. While the film is largely on form, some of the editing and the majority of the music is misguided (probably due to copyright). However I ultimately have to commend director Lucky McKee. Yes, he is a male director and yes he does take an unorthodox approach to a challenging subject but he does make this film work.  

‘The Woman’ is one of the most controversial films that I have seen this year, yet it is an undoubtedly unique and bold piece of film-making which definitely pushes the edges of political correctness. It certainly is a challenging experience.