One of the sickest, most depraved, transgressive, downright disturbing films you’ll see this year (if our moral nannies over at the BBFC allow you to), The Woman may just be the first truly feminist horror movie since I Spit on Your Grave or Abel Ferrara’s Angel of Vengeance/Ms. 45.
One of the sickest, most
depraved, transgressive, downright disturbing films you’ll see this year (if
our moral nannies over at the BBFC allow you to), The Woman may just be the first truly feminist horror movie since I Spit on Your Grave or Abel Ferrara’s Angel of Vengeance/Ms. 45.
Chris Cleek is living the American
Dream. A successful small-town
lawyer with a beautiful wife Belle (Angela
Bettis) who knows her place, three wonderful, well-mannered children;
teenagers Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter)
and Brian (Zach Rand) and
kindergartener Darlin’ (Shyla Moulsen)
and a picture-perfect, Norman Rockwell farmhouse, life for Chris couldn’t get
much better. Until one fateful
day, on a hunting trip, he spies a feral, wild woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), covered in blood and filth, loose in the
Naturally, he does what any red-blooded
American male would do. He captures
her, drags her home and chains her to the wall in the cellar of his barn. Introducing his family to this savage,
elemental creature, he announces he’s making it a family project to “civilise”
her. But just why does Chris want
a dangerous, half-naked woman chained up in his basement? Why is his family so accepting of this
frankly insane decision? What is
eldest daughter Peggy hiding? And
just what is driving the family dogs so crazy?
With Chris spending more and more
quality time down in the cellar, burgeoning psychopath Brian looking set to be
a chip off Dad’s old block and Peg facing questions at school from her
suspicious but well-meaning teacher Miss Raton (Carlee Baker), family life implodes. And chained in the cellar, the Woman waits…
A spiritual sequel to screenwriter
and novelist Ketchum’s novel Offspring
(which was filmed by The Woman’s producer
Andrew van den Houten), The Woman arrives on British shores
already trailing the controversy of its Sundance screening which prompted faints,
walkouts, accusations of rampant misogyny and calls for the negative to be ritually
burned. Yup, it’s that good!
Ultimately, the charges of
misogyny don’t hold water. Yes,
the film does revolve around a naked, bestial woman chained to a wall and
features several repellent acts of horrific sexual abuse, but between them
Ketchum and McKee have fashioned an unashamedly radical feminist horror movie
that’s every frame burns with rage while never losing its dark, subversive,
The film’s menfolk are about as
repellent as it’s possible to be; Chris’ surface charm and easy smile masking a
raging sociopath capable of flitting from flirtation to passive aggression to
psychotic, murderous rage in the blink of an eye while Brian is happily
following in his father’s footsteps upping his game from minor acts of bullying
to full-on sexual torture. When
he’s caught abusing the Woman, his father’s reaction is to shrug; boys will
after all be boys. In a scene
that’s both chilling and funny, Brian exacts vindictive vengeance on a girl in
his class who’s beaten him at basketball by sticking chewing gum in her
hairbrush. When she gets her hair
painfully caught in the gum, he’s the first to offer false sympathy and
aid. Like his father he’s already
become adept at hiding his true face from those around him.
Fuelling the nature/nurture debate
at the heart of the film, while Brian has been raised to be a psychopath, the
Cleek women have been raised to be submissive victims. Belle is the perfect housewife, a
passive, repressed mouse. She
knows her place and knows she’ll get a slap if she steps out of line. Beaten down by years of physical and emotional
abuse, she can only watch, mute, as her husband breaks their daughters’
spirit. Peggy meanwhile is obviously
terrified of her father, cannot bear to be touched by him, dreads him finding
out that she’s pregnant. Only
Darlin’, the apple of his eye, seems to escape the consequences of Chris’
actions, innocently accepting the perverse status quo. Even Peggy’s teacher, the film’s sole
proactively ‘good’ female character, is eventually, violently, forced to submit
to Chris’ will, punished for questioning how he chooses to raise his family and
her implied lesbianism.
The only female character in the
film Chris is unable to dominate is the titular Woman. Raised outside of society, she conforms
to none of the stereotypical gender roles forced upon her sex. She may be a savage, feral cannibal who
spends much of the film chained to a wall and being abused but she’s the
ultimate threat to Chris’ rule; a strong, empowered woman who’ll fight back. When Darlin’ and Belle are making
gingerbread men and Darlin’ innocently asks her mother: “Do you think the animal lady will eat a little man?”
the answer should be self-evident.
She’d eat him alive.
Earlier in the film, after being captured and chained, when Chris
foolishly gets a little too close, she bites off and swallows his finger,
spitting out, with obvious relish, his wedding ring. Her rejection of patriarchal dominance couldn’t be any more
explicit if she was reading Andrea Dworkin as she does it. As an audience, we’re just waiting for
the inevitable reckoning, the moment when the Woman slips her shackles and
wreaks her bloody vengeance.
The performances are
fantastic. Horror icon Angela
Bettis brilliantly plays against type as the repressed Belle, a woman whose own
fear prevents her from acting to save her children, while Sean Bridgers is a revelation as Chris, an apple pie image of the
all-American psychopath; handsome, charming and deeply unsettling. Shyla Moulsen’s young Darlin’ is as
cute as a button and Zach Rand is chilling as Brian, a rotten apple content to
fall at the feet of the tree.
Scream queen Carlee Baker is sympathetic as Peggy’s doomed teacher and,
as Peggy, Lauren Ashley Carter delivers a subtle, nuanced portrayal of a
damaged young abuse survivor.
The film however belongs to
Pollyanna McIntosh’s Woman.
Committed doesn’t even begin to describe her performance. Naked, filthy and blood-spattered,
reduced to grunts, howls and her own unintelligible jibber jabber, she’s a
snarling force of savage nature whose debasement at the hands of the film’s men
fails to break her will. Raw and
powerful, McIntosh never allows you to lose sight of the human being within the
animal or the beast within the Woman.
Dark, funny, subversive and
challenging, The Woman is a
thrilling, intelligent walk on the wild side.