Several months back, The Woman – a collaboration between extreme horror author, Jack Ketchum and twisted horror auteur, Lucky McKee – made headlines when a disgruntled viewer stood up after a screening of the film at the Sundance Film Festival, and began a lengthy rant in which he declared the film “valueless” and suggested it should be “confiscated and burned”. Apparently, the man took exception to the brutal and unflinching manner in which women are treated in the movie, but, had he paid closer attention, he’d have been able to see through the over-the-top misogyny for the decidedly feminist rallying cry that The Woman actually is. It probably would have been helpful had the offended party known the titular character’s gruesome and depraved back story!
The Woman is actually the third part in a series of books by Ketchum (this one co-written by McKee) that focuses on a feral tribe of cannibalistic cast-offs who’ve spent the past century-plus migrating up and down the coast of New England and southern Canada, feeding on hikers, tourists, and drifters. First introduced in Ketchum’s notorious novel Off Season, the matriarchal clan (mostly made up of kidnapped children or the spawn of sexually mature female members who would rape their male victims before eating them) would meet their ultimate fate in the sequel, Offspring, with only their leader, The Woman, surviving to carry on their bloodline.
McKee’s film picks up where 2009’s supremely violent adaptation of Offspring left off, with The Woman (once again played by Scottish model/actress, Pollyanna Macintosh), now wounded and alone, takes up residence in the woods of a small New England town. While out hunting, local lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) observes this feral female bathing in a stream and, after spending much of the day observing her, hatches a plan to capture and “civilize” her. Chris, an abusive and domineering man who rules women in his family with an iron fist, orders his wife, Belle (Angela Bettis) and children, Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter), Brian (Zach Rand), and Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusin), to clean out the basement in preparation for a big “surprise”. The next day, Chris ventures back into the woods and captures The Woman, chains her up in the basement (losing a finger in the process), and introduces the new “project” to his family.
What happens next is oftentimes hard to watch, but, in the tradition of Ketchum’s gloriously grisly prose, it’s impossible to look away, especially given the strengths of the performances and elegance with which it all is filmed by McKee. While I’m sure there will be many who will view The Woman and see it as yet another torture porn flick with a misogynistic mean streak a mile wide, more astute viewers will grasp the feminist message, here. Chris views women as not only inferior to men, but, basically, as subhuman. This feral creature he thinks himself capable of civilizing embodies this, in his mind, and, while he thinks he’s achieving his goal, ultimately, The Woman is just biding her time until his hubris leads to the inevitable slip-up. Unlike his weak-willed wife or terrified daughter, Chris cannot “break” The Woman, and, ultimately, it is she who ends up breaking him (quite literally).
Set to a blistering rock soundtrack, and with deeper characterizations and more emotional punch than your average horror flick, The Woman is a deeply unsettling film that’s equal parts gross out horror and dysfunctional family drama. Were one to expunge the genre elements, The Woman could easily stand alongside such celebrated dark dramas as Todd Solondz’s Happiness or even Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia in terms of style and substance as McKee pairs long tracking shots and dramatic slow motion sequences with powerfully raw rock tunes that lend the film a hip, hypnotic vibe that belies its subject matter.
Yes, The Woman is a very violent and deeply troubling movie, but it’s also a unique and expertly made film that will not only please fans of Jack Ketchum’s splatter punk style and Lucky McKee’s artsy horror aesthete, but should certainly win over those who relish challenging cinema. Excellent performances across the board, a great soundtrack, and assured direction make this one of the best horror releases in recent years. Highly recommended!