The Woman is an incredibly difficult film about which to write without getting into spoiler territory. Because of this problem, I have decided to split this piece into two parts. The first part will be a straight review that steers clear of plot specifics beyond the first act setup. The second part will be a discussion of the themes and plot particulars that illuminate the heady ideas lurking just beneath the surface of one of the most disturbing movies I’ve ever seen. This second part will be for people who have seen the film and will be full of spoilers if you haven’t seen the film. Don’t worry; I’ll warn you when I get to that point.
Chris (Sean Bridgers) is the patriarch of the seemingly normal Cleek family. His wife, Belle (Angela Bettis), is a traditional housewife straight out of a ‘50s TV show. She cooks, cleans, and helps maintain order when it comes to their children. Their daughter, Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), is the oldest child. She’s withdrawn much of the time, refusing to socialize with other teenagers when we first meet her at a community barbecue. Their son, Brian (Zach Rand), is in middle school. Like Peggy, he is distant from his peers, but this fact doesn’t seem as torturous to him. Where Peggy refuses to take part in any kind of school or social activity, Brian at least will shoot hoops with other kids. Of course, his reasons for doing so are less than wholesome. The youngest Cleek child is Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). Not yet in school, Darlin’ is cute and precocious, standing just on the tolerable side of movie kid cuteness.
From outside appearances, there’s nothing terribly unusual about the Cleek family. As presented, when the film begins, there are subtle tensions in the family. Chris is a successful real estate attorney in their small town, but his gregarious nature is tinged with just a touch of obnoxiousness. When he agrees to help a neighbor by purchasing her home, he cracks a vulgar joke that is far from appropriate. Belle seems wound a little too tightly, but this behavior could be seen as just the stress that comes with raising three children. Peggy may willingly ostracize herself from everyone, but she’s a teenager, and they’re moody, right? Brian may be aloof to others and obsessive when it comes to practicing free throws, but it’s easy to assume he’s just focused on being a better basketball player. Darlin’ is the only member of the family that doesn’t seem a little off.
But what’s wrong with being a little off? No family is perfect and the small community the Cleek’s inhabit would never suspect anything too terrible could be happening behind their front door. Sure, Chris is controlling, Belle practically shakes when approached for some small talk by a neighbor in the grocery store, Peggy curls up in a ball and cries while sitting out of P.E. class, and Brian stands back and observes everyone around him as though they’re aliens to be examined, but what happens within the family is not for prying eyes to see.
Co-writer/Director Lucky McKee sets the stage for (most of) the Cleek’s ugly secrets to spill out in a masterful first act that slowly ratchets up the tension before deflating it slightly with some well-placed dark comedy. While it’s obvious by the second scene that Chris is potentially violent, the rest of the family’s problems are doled out only as the audience needs to know information. What is kept hidden for most of the film’s first fifteen minutes is what will be the match that lights the fuse on the powder keg that is the Cleek family. That match introduces itself in the form of the titular character.
Chris spots The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) while out hunting one day. Dirty, wearing rags and animal skins for clothing, bleeding from a wound in the stomach, she has obviously been living in the woods for a very long time. Despite his instant interest in her, Chris does not approach The Woman, even as he follows her back to the cave where she is living. But he does not alert the authorities, either. Instead, he jumps into action, ordering the family to clean up the storm cellar. When Belle asks why they’re tackling this chore so suddenly, Chris keeps his secret, but giddily promises a big surprise.
The next day, Chris ambushes The Woman, throwing a net over her and knocking her out with the butt of his rifle. Using a contraption he built in the cellar, he locks The Woman into place and sets about “civilizing” her, much to the horror of Belle and Peggy and the fascination of Brian.
What follows is an emotionally and physically brutal descent into Hell as the film reveals just how much of a monster Chris is capable of being. His tools to “teach” The Woman how to be civilized are torture and degradation and it becomes clear these are the same methods he has used to keep his family under control for several years. The stress of having The Woman in their lives and the way Chris abuses her, causes the long-simmering tensions in the family to come to the surface, leading to a jaw dropping—no hyperbole, my jaw literally dropped–third act.
Co-written and directed by Lucky McKee, the mastermind behind May, the film walks the thinnest of tightropes between making angry points about the evils of abuse of power—both physical and psychological–and straight exploitation. Finding the perfect balance between the morality tale at the film’s core and courting the horror audience with extreme violence and gore, The Woman is the type of boundary-pushing film that independent filmmakers should be making.
Much of the credit for the film’s success goes to the outstanding performance by Bridgers. Instead of portraying Chris as a glowering maniac, he plays him as a sociopath who has learned everything about being a husband and father through watching bad family sitcoms. He outwardly appears goofy and cheesy, hamming up an appreciation for Darlin’s taste in Korean pop songs and offering shallow platitudes to a clearly frightened Peggy in an effort to make her stop sulking.
The film also benefits from the dark comedy scattered throughout the narrative, much of it courtesy of Bridgers. His delivery of the line, “Who wants to go down in the cellar with me?” is so utterly perfect as to draw laughs from even the most jaded of viewers. At the same time that Bridgers nails the odd comic beats present in his character, McKee presents clever ways of showing how Chris’s point of view is skewed. When he first glimpses The Woman, she is wearing clothing stitched together out of skins and rags. But for the briefest of moments, he imagines her topless, and the music changes to an almost ridiculously seductive tune while the film goes into slow motion. It feels as though McKee is referencing the famous shot of Phoebe Cates from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The sequence is riotously funny, but also works as a piece of character building for Chris. The scene tells us a lot about how he sees the world. Specifically, how he sees women.
All of McKee’s films have had nearly perfect pacing and The Woman is no exception. Here, he uses Bridgers’s performance as a way of pacing the film. Starting slowly, the narrative follows the evolution of Chris’s violent tendencies from matter-of-fact and unemotional to unhinged and misogynistic, with the tone of the film becoming darker and more disquieting with every layer of Chris’s depravity that is revealed.
I am stunned the film has experienced such a backlash from critics and viewers claiming it to be misogynistic or glorifying violence. The Woman is subjected to terrible things in the film, but McKee never condones or glamorizes the torture. There is a fetishistic quality to the violence in the third act, but once again, it’s not made to look “cool.” It is incredibly ugly and horrifying, which is the point. Context is an important thing to remember when talking about controversial content and McKee has every moment of the film held in the proper context.
This is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the last few years, but it’s also a singular experience. I can’t say that it’s an enjoyable trip, but when was a look at the human capability for evil ever deemed enjoyable? That said, McKee never blinks and rarely turns the camera away from the horrors found at the bottom of Chris’s soul and the terrible affect his warped value system has on his family. The film becomes a violent morality tale in the vein of the darkest of any Brothers Grimm fairy tale. I found it fascinating and impossible to turn away from the screen, no matter how much I wanted to.
We are now entering spoiler territory. If you have not seen the film, I urge you to watch it and return to read the rest of this piece.
As a film, The Woman is basically a stand-alone story. In actuality, it is based on a novel—written concurrently with the screenplay—by McKee and Jack Ketchum. This novel is the third in a series by Ketchum concerning a band of feral, sadistic cannibals roaming the woods along the New England coastline. The character of The Woman is the last of these people who, in the novels, hunted people living on the rural fringes of small towns, occasionally kidnapping and indoctrinating children into their ranks to bolster their numbers. This knowledge clarifies some of the more mysterious aspects of the film—including the hypnotic opening sequence involving a wolf and a baby and the wordless scene at the end between The Woman, Peggy, and Darlin’. But I prefer to look at the film as its own story and ignore the previous entries because they take away some of the hallucinatory power from what McKee and Ketchum have created specifically for the screen. Viewing the film as its own story also allows me to focus on some of the more intriguing themes and questions bubbling beneath the surface.
What strikes me as the most fascinating question asked by the film is, where does victimization end and complicity begin? The story is cleverly constructed to make the audience think that Chris’s imprisonment and torture of The Woman is a new wrinkle in his repellant behavior. Belle, Peggy, and Brian certainly act as though this is a new experience for all of them. And technically, it is, but as is revealed in a brilliantly twisted third act sequence, the Cleek family already has a history of dehumanization and torture. Even worse, their first victim was one of their own—a daughter born with a genetic defect known as anopthalmia. This discovery forces reexamination of everything that happened up to that point in the film. Suddenly, Belle is less of a victim who is only going along with Chris’s plans out of fear for the safety of her and her children. Her big scene in the kitchen where she stands up to Chris and gets beaten mercilessly for her efforts suddenly look like the actions of a hypocrite. At one point, when she was a young mother traumatized at giving birth to a child without eyes, she could be a victim. But nearly two decades of going along with Chris’s evil ways, subjecting three more children to that sort of family life, and her continued silence during the torture and rape of The Woman, takes away a lot of sympathy for her character. There’s a point somewhere in her past where Belle became complicit in Chris’s depravity. This makes her violent death at the hands of The Woman suddenly less tragic and more of a karmic comeuppance.
The twist also throws Peggy’s behavior into a less sympathetic light. While she is still young and frightened enough to be classified on the victimization side of the spectrum, she’s hardly unable to tell right from wrong. She expresses disapproval to Belle at what Chris is doing and stops Brian from torturing The Woman, so she is not completely helpless. But she maintains silence about her concerns to anyone outside of the family. I took away the feeling that she was on her way to handling things in the same way that Belle has dealt for so long. The fact that she finally acts to stop Chris in the third act is her saving grace—even if her actions really only make things worse.
The predominant theme of the film is an obvious one: which is worse, the obvious monster or the one hiding in our midst? McKee’s handling of that old standby is fresh in its cynicism. If you ignore what is known about the people from whom The Woman comes, she is a sympathetic figure for much of the film. It’s not revealed until the third act, just how dangerous and insane she actually is. Her turn toward violence (hinted at earlier in the film when she bites off Chris’s finger and swallows it) initially plays like a moment of extreme catharsis for the viewer. I admit, I felt like standing up and cheering when she took down Brian and Chris in a gore-soaked, heart ripping frenzy. But it’s in the aftermath that it becomes obvious that she is no victim pushed too far. She’s a dangerous predator, looking to rebuild her family and she does so by taking Darlin’ away from the frightened Peggy. This is a cold and calculating person, just as capable of violence as Chris and just as selfish. In the end, neither character is worse; one of them is just more recognizable to us. It’s not a pleasant thought to leave at the end of a film, but The Woman is hardly a pleasant experience, even as it proves itself to be a brilliantly told story.
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