Screening Log #21: The Woman (2011)

Written by Lucky McKee, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum
Directed by Lucky McKee
Starring Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, and Polyanna McIntosh

 

Horror by way of Todd Solondz, Lucky McKee’s The Woman is as viciously subversive as it is viscerally gory. Co-penned with horror author Jack Ketchum, the film details what transpires when successful country lawyer Chris Cleek, Sean Bridgers, stumbles upon a lone feral woman bathing in the wilderness. Cleek, naturally, decides that this powerfully natural figure of femininity must be captured, brought to his house, imprisoned, and “civilized”. The titular Woman, played with primal fierceness by Polyanna McIntosh, is filthy, black-toothed, unable to speak in anything other than growls and hissed mono-syllabic words. The conquering male figure ambushes the Woman and strings her up in his fruit cellar, which he’s enlisted his whole family, almost, in cleaning up.

At first glance there is something askew with the Cleeks; seen at a barbecue, the members are atomized, cocooned in private, barely perceptible, issues. Despite this immediate sense of unease, the Cleek family seem to be quintessentially American: moody teen daughter, son playing basketball and seeking to satisfy a pleasantly demanding father, young daughter doted on by her mother, licking batter from the beater of a hand-mixer. The interruption provided by the Woman’s entrance quickly ruptures any sense of normalcy that may have existed. The son’s, Brian, cruel tendencies hinted at in an incident where he maliciously revenges a free-throw contest lost, bloom in tandem with shockingly cruel adolescent desires; the daughter acts strangely at school, wears baggy clothes and is feared to be pregnant by an observant teacher. Chris’ cheerfully domineering behaviour shades farther from genial father toward misogynistic sociopath; he leads the family in a completely dehumanizing process of “civilizing” the Woman, feeding her oatmeal on the floor, cleaning her with a high-pressure water cleaner, and, eventually, having his way with her sexually after leaving his wife in bed.

These acts of civilization quickly become the opposite of that, a process by which Chris subjugates the Woman – capitalized cannily to connote, perhaps, larger allegorical relevancies – under his authoritarian control. The “normal” institution of the nuclear family becomes an arena in which the natural order is perverted and exploited. The Woman’s treatment in captivity manifests the abuse suffered by Chris’ wife, Belle, Angela Bettis, perhaps less physically apparent, but no less damaging. The film even gestures toward an insinuation that the daughter’s, Peggy, pregnancy may be the result of incestuous abuse. The nuclear family deconstructs itself through the corrupt influence of a perverse patriarchal order.

The film climaxes in a dizzying – literally, as the camera circles Chris and Peggy, its lens fish-eyed to distort the already disorienting action of the camera – culmination, as the film side-steps certain tropes, leaving enough latitude for the viewer to participate in the narrative actively, while bloodily embracing others. Ending with the nuclear family radically redefined, The Woman, like McKee’s May, earns its, perhaps, over-reaching ending through deftly simple story-telling that invests the audience in not only the characters of the film, but their larger contexts.

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