The Woman (2011)

The Woman first published by Little White Lies

Stick around after the closing credits of Lucky McKee’s The Woman, and you will be treated to a beautifully animated sequence in which Darlin’ Cleek (the film’s youngest character) sails alone, like Max in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, to an island whose monstrous inhabitant inspires wonder and delight rather than terror in the little girl.

Not only does this joyously odd easter egg confirm the cartoonish qualities of a film where seemingly every conflict is polarised into extreme positions, but it also, as a representation of the little girl’s dream life, forms a neat ring composition with the film’s opening, in which the wild Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) of the title is also shown dreaming – a dream (but also a premonition) of a troglodytic family unit that comprises herself, a young child and a pet wolf.

There are other dreamers here too: Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), teenaged sister to Darlin’ (Shayla Molhusen), loses herself to books and music to try and shut out the undesirable realities in and around her; and when their imperious father Chris (Sean Bridgers) first catches sight of the Woman as she bathes in a creek, his ears (and also ours) throb with a pumped-up rock-and-roll soundtrack that is not really there (but certainly reveals what is on his mind), even as he literally undresses her with his eyes.

Indeed, everything in this harshly hyperreal film takes on a dream-like, allegorical quality, as the middle-class Cleeks, well respected in town but living out on the edge of the woods, are undone by their mutually savage encounters with the wild Woman.

Pillar of the community, officer of the court, and proud family man Chris hunts down the animalistic Woman and chains her up in the barn cellar, intending to “train her, civilise her, free her from herself and her baser instincts” – although he has other plans for her too.

If the rest of the family meekly plays along with his unhinged scheme, that is because Chris is the sort of bullying, abusive patriarch who responds to any questioning from his long-suffering wife Belle (Angela Bettis) with swiftly casual violence, and who regards “because your daddy asked you to” as the only explanation ever necessary for his children – even for his son Brian (Zach Rand), a sneaky sadist who is fast learning the advantages of being a male Cleek (“Boys”, as Chris insists, “will be boys”). In any case, silence comes easily to a family with a history of secrets.

The Woman too is mostly mute, but her pre-articulate grunts, unselfconscious postures and watchful, accusatory glares (all performed by McKintosh to expressive perfection) speak volumes in the language of defiant resistance. If Chris knocks her unconscious with his rifle butt in order to capture her, then the Woman’s first act upon awakening is to bite off her captor’s finger, triumphantly spitting out that great symbol of female bondage, his wedding ring. And so begins a clash of values and wills from which no-one (except maybe fearless Darlin’) emerges entirely unscathed.

No doubt The Woman will, like the similar I Spit on Your Grave (originally released in 1978 under the title Day of the Woman), be accused in some quarters of misogyny, but really it is a film about misogyny, showing not only Chris’ largely unchallenged sense of male entitlement, but also the madness and mayhem that such a blinkered outlook inevitably engenders. Not that the Woman’s own brand of atavistic feminism represents so much of a viable alternative as a satisfying gut reaction in kind.

Caught between the two unyielding extremes represented by Chris and the Woman (who are both forces of nature more than characters), this becomes a film far more about the choices made by Belle and Peggy, themselves also held captive in a situation where there can be no middle ground or easy escape.

“Do you think that animal lady will eat a little man?”

As Belle bakes gingerbread cookies in the kitchen, Darlin’ asks, “Do you think that animal lady will eat a little man?” Though the question is meant innocently enough, its double meaning is clear – and if part of the film’s considerable tension derives from the question of just how far the Woman will eventually go in avenging every outrage committed against herself (and the film’s other women), viewers may well still feel uncomfortable with the uncompromising nature of the answer when it comes. There are carefully contrived symmetries between crime and punishment here, to be sure, but they are messy – and in that messiness, true horror lies.

Anyone who has seen The Lost (2006) or The Girl Next Door (2007) will be familiar with the dark view of human nature to be found in screen adaptations from renowned horror novelist Jack Ketchum. McKee had previously collaborated with  Ketchum on Red (2008),  and with The Woman he revisits themes and locations  from Ketchum’s Dead River series that includes the controversial 1981 novel Off Season and its sequel Offspring (the latter also made into a 2009 film featuring McIntosh).

Yet this time McKee co-wrote with Ketchum not only the screenplay but also the source novel, ensuring that his own voice and sensibility permeate the film. The result is a ferociously confronting satire of American family values – with real bite.

Anticipation: May director Lucky McKee brings promise.

Enjoyment: As enjoyable as a film about horrific domestic abuse can be.

In A Nutshell: A truly biting examination of the misogyny underlying patriarchal civilisation.

© Anton Bitel