Pollyanna McIntosh has been playing ‘The Woman’ – a feral cannibal with a vicious streak to match her strong mothering instinct – for a decade now. In 2009, she starred in Andrew van den Houten’s Offspring, and in Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011) she was the lone survivor of her tribe and, in her encounters with a Christian family (the Cleeks) living on the outskirts of town, she proved an embodiment of the feminist bite-back against supposedly civilised patriarchy. Both those films were based on novels by Jack Ketchum, who died in early 2018, and in the latter The Woman is last seen walking back into the wild woods with the Cleeks’ three daughters (teen Peggy, doglike ‘Socket’ and little Darlin’) in tow – a new if regressive matriarchy bonded in blood and violently resistant to male oppression.
While playing with the same oppositions of bestiality and civilisation, male and female, the latest film in this loose series, Darlin’, is different from the others. For a start, although Ketchum is listed as an executive producer and is also the film’s dedicatee in the closing credits, not only is McIntosh returning here to her rôle as The Woman (now older and needier), but Darlin’ is McInstosh’s feature debut as both writer and director, ensuring that this ongoing story, which has always dealt in gendered polarities, is now solely in the hands and gaze of a female filmmaker. The Woman is truly on top.
Nonetheless, Darlin’ begins with The Woman in something of a rut, her all-female clan having dissolved through disease and death, with only Darlin’ (Lauren Canny), now an unkempt, preverbal teenager, remaining in the fold. Even this situation is disrupted in the opening scene, when Darlin’, sent by The Woman to a hospital to abduct a baby, is hit by an ambulance on her way in and detained, before being passed on to a Christian orphanage. Accordingly, Darlin’ deals in rites of passage, tracing its adolescent heroine’s tentative steps towards socialisation – acquiring speech, learning to enjoy the company of others, and even finding faith – while a parallel narrative sees The Woman desperately searching for her lost ‘daughter’ (and for other daughters to restock her broken clan), and butchering any man who gets in her way. Their two storylines will eventually collide, and the expectation of this eventual collision is the film’s principal, and highly effective, source of tension.
The first word we hear in Darlin’, shouted by indigent Charles (Carl Palmer) to get the attention of a hospital receptionist, is “Whore!”. He apologises to her, immediately and sheepishly – but nonetheless his overtly ugly, heavily gendered display will not go unpunished, at least after a fashion. For while The Woman is not in any way privy to this exchange, Charlie will be her first victim, sacrificed on the series’ ideologically anti-misogynist altar. There will be other sacrifices along the way, mostly – although not exclusively – bad men who mistreat women, like a rude, overbearing cop, or the doctor who treats Darlin’ with contempt, or the john who tries to rape his pick-up, or the church Bishop (Bryan Batt) who abuses virgin girls (it is less clear why precisely a random male clown visiting the hospital needs to be killed). Only the gay male nurse Tony (Cooper Andrews), unerringly kind and respectful towards Darlin’, emerges relatively unscathed from a lengthy encounter with The Woman.
Yet there are other crosscurrents, beyond this battle of the sexes, underwriting The Woman’s onslaught. When she attacks Charlie, bedded down for the night on a park bench, she is preying upon someone as desperate and sidelined as she is, in what is a case of the underclass eating itself. The Woman’s quest for Darlin’ will lead her to a company of other women, squatting together in a derelict building, who will accept her for who and what she is, no questions asked. If they collectively form a group of marginalised women, The Woman will also be marginalised from her own franchise, pushed to the edge of this film’s story while Darlin’ – as the film’s very title implies – takes up its centre in her attempts to be reintegrated into society. Darlin’ will join her own all-female commune, and will, like The Woman, find her place in it. Yet while the orphanage of St Philomena’s affords plenty of women’s support – from, for example, the conflicted Sister Jennifer (Nora Jane-Noone) and the recalcitrant Billy (Maddie Nichols) – it has at its head a man, manipulative and malicious, who must, like a serpent or dragon, be defeated to restore the place to a primordial paradise.
Also interwoven into this Biblical (but anti-clerical) saga is a messy discourse on women’s bodies and the right to choose, as both Darlin’ and The Woman come with complicated attitudes towards pregnancy, parturition, (something like) adoption and maternity itself. Darlin’ is a figure like Kaspar Hauser or Bad Boy Bubby – reared outside of human society, and now an open book ready to be inscribed with its fundamental rules and conventions, for good or ill. Her more-or-less willing initiation into humanity – after she turns her back on The Woman – exposes the patriarchal trappings under which we all live, and the ways in which those might be negotiated by young women to their own best advantage.
Darlin’ is looking for redemption from past sin, and for salvation from the devil that she believes she carries inside herself – but to attain these things, she must also be delivered from exploitation, oppression and hypocrisy. In the end, McIntosh’s film appropriates the language and metaphors of Christianity to rebuild the church as a refuge for fallen women against the multiple historic ravages of patriarchy – and indeed of matriarchy. Inevitably, in a film concerned with cannibalism and bloody murder, the Eucharist, too, will be radically redefined. As issues of sex and religion, purity and pregnancy, vengeance and violence, all become horrifically confused, it is precisely this kind of mixed message that ensures Darlin’ lingers in the mind – not least because these are precisely the cruces of division in America’s current culture wars.
© Anton Bitel