A feminist horror masterpiece10/10
So far I haven't been that impressed with Lucky McKee's films, but with The Woman he has become a director who has found his voice. It's a singular and deeply personal vision and for the first time in a film of his, it all comes together. I still find it difficult to put my finger on what makes the film so upsetting and I will need another couple of viewings to completely get my head around it, but this is part of the film's brilliance.
In short, The Woman is about a man who, on a hunting trip, comes across and entraps a feral woman who lives in the woods. He decides to chain her up in his basement to 'civilise' her. He involves his family, as if this were a project like building a garden shed. As the film goes on it becomes clear that the man, a pillar of the community, has been mistreating the female members of his household for a long time and the character of "the woman" comes to personify and externalise what has been broken in that family all along.
While the last act erupts in bloody violence, it's the emotional violence and the effect on its characters that we experience along the way, which is really upsetting. There is also some pitch black humour in the film, which only makes the film more disturbing.
There has already been some controversy when there were walk-outs at Sundance where the film has been accused of misogyny, but I don't think that's the case. This is a feminist horror film, but one that avoids trite lectures and finger wagging moralising. Just because a film depicts something, doesn't mean it approves of it.
The film sits between something like a Todd Solondz film but without the hipster nihilism and the visceral rawness of recent French torture horror films like Martyrs or Inside but without the moral vacuity or leering voyeurism. Those looking for a straightforward shocker may be disappointed, because the film constantly side steps the conventions and cliches of the genre. McKee doesn't give you fake scares to jolt you or conventional suspense sequences and it doesn't "reward" you with violence, when you expect it. If you are open to McKee's approach then the film will crawl under your skin and it will fester there and that's what I call a real horror film.
The film's horror lies in its characters and in the unequal power dynamic between men and women. On the surface this may look like a film about a monster woman killing people or it maybe about a family trapping and abusing a feral women, but while those are aspects of the film, they aren't really what the film is about. The emotional pay off to these genre conventions is completely different from other modern horror films and their depiction never resorts to cliches. It's a film that gives an audience what it needs, rather than what it wants.
A note on the acting some comments have been complaining about. The performances by the entire cast are amazing. Those complaining about the actors in the film don't seem to get that the performances are non-naturalistic on purpose. The acting style fits the sense of allegory and heightened reality, yet the actors still get to the truth behind their characters. In a perfect world they should hand Sean Bridgers, who plays the father, the Oscar for best actor now and be done with it. Angela Bettis' fragile frame and sad face have never been put to better use. The actress who plays 'the woman' is truly ferocious and the kids are great too, especially the teenage daughter whose slow withdrawal from the world is painful to watch.
The use of a rock soundtrack in the film is also fantastic, which gives it a raw punk power and aesthetic. There is a moment where the mother allows herself to connect and identify with the 'woman's' plight, while a guitar chord drones on and it is absolutely exhilarating.
There are things in this film which during my initial viewing I reacted against and now when I think back on it, they were absolutely perfect creative choices. Shot digitally and looking it, using slow motion, fish eye lenses and many dissolves at times seemingly at random, the film is often quite ugly looking but this only adds to it's raw, ragged punk quality. The fate of one central character genuinely appalled me and for a moment I hated the film, but then thinking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do.
I'm a jaded viewer of horror movies by now and its not often that a film gets to genuinely mess with my head and leaves me richer for it. The horror genre needs more films like this.