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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Woman (2011) review


Pollyanna McIntosh (The Woman), Sean Bridgers (Chris Cleek), Angela Bettis (Belle Cleek), Zach Rand (Brian Cleek), Lauren Ashley Carter (Peggy Cleek), Shyla Molhusen (Darlin' Cleek), Alexa Marcigliano (Socket)

Directed by Lucky McKee

"Have you ever known me to let things get out of hand?"--Chris Cleek to his secretary.

The Short Version: This sick, twisted horror film is the insane progeny of FATHER KNOWS BEST after being raped by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. If thought provoking endurance tests like MARTYRS are enticing to you, then this film is perfect for your unsavory itinerary. That's an endorsement, by the way, as Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum prove to be a match made in horror movie hell successfully and savagely shoveling one of the most repugnant, yet beautifully captured maleficent, misogynistic motion pictures down our throats. If you're brave enough, view at your own risk. A near masterpiece of the macabre and the moribund, it's rude, rowdy and has something to say. You'll either love it or hate it. Stick around for a totally bizarre extended scene with Darlin' after the end credits have finished.

While on a solo hunting excursion, Chris Cleek, a reputable lawyer and family man, finds a feral female bathing in a stream. Capturing her, Cleek chains her up in his basement. Instead of notifying the local authorities, the seemingly moralistic patriarch intends to "domesticate" this animalistic woman which results in some shocking revelations.

Working from a novel written by both Jack Ketchum and director McKee, this pseudo-sequel to 2009's OFFSPRING (that films director takes a producer credit here) almost defies classification. Successfully distorting audience perceptions, this dirty little movie will likely derive some of the most disturbing emotional responses in those who see it--that is if you're able to make it from the beginning to the beyond insane finale. Gathering a firestorm of controversy since its festival showings last year, the films long gestation towards completion is well worth it for those who can appreciate this mind numbing descent into human depravity. That's not to say those who find this movie morally reprehensible shouldn't wear the scars burned into them after this 100+ minutes have ended as a badge of honor. Honestly, what do you think you're getting with a film bearing the name of Jack Ketchum among the credits?

Lucky McKee (who also directed the Ketchum novel RED [2008] for the silver screen) explodes with grotesquely fervent brilliance with this tonally and graphically unsettling motion picture. Categorically speaking, this disquieting, nightmarish vision of the All American middle class iconography carefully and brutally marries skewed normality and untamed savagery that--particularly in the third act--recalls the atmosphere of Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). Prior to the proceedings going straight to gore drenched hell during the finale, the filmmakers painstakingly pick their shock moments. Some of these are built up through foreshadowing and others are artistically manipulated through dissolves and nerve-jangling edits often accompanied by brooding, or lovelorn alternative rock tunes that reflect the onscreen drama and cruelty.

It's here where the filmmakers intentions are unclear. These are very strong, powerful moments, but the use of these songs, as eloquently morbid as they are when paired with the visuals, may be construed as blackly humorous. Perceiving some of these tastelessly accomplished scenes as darkly comical will no doubt make some viewers infinitely more uncomfortable with what is unspooling before their very eyes. By the time the finale has arrived, the chains are broken and all bets are off. Things subtlely and explicitly alluded to over the course of the movie finally boil over into a miasma of violence punctuated by a geek show level of shock and awe that will leave your jaw on the floor and those with weak constitutions either feeling nauseous, or ejecting the DVD altogether.

Probably the only real fumble this film makes is in it being a sequel to the far inferior OFFSPRING (2009). If you've not seen, nor heard of that movie, you will be perplexed as to who this Woman is and where she comes from. There's a brief scene at the beginning that appears to be a dream sequence alluding to the notion that the Wild Thang was raised by a wolf. Still, considering the quirkiness and the outrageous schism of the typical family unit that is revealed here, the doubtless confusion over the title femme feral fatale and her origin will likely fade for those unfamiliar with the previous picture. However, knowing who she is and what she has done prior to her capture, McKee succeeds in doing something Rob Zombie has failed at repeatedly in his own movies--derive sympathy for the title monster.

One of the keys to this films success in that respect is the creation of another monster that is equally as vicious, but bearing a facade of a civilized familial bread winner. Ketchum's adaptations are rife with this kind of oppressive evil hidden away from the eyes of society; particularly in THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (2007) and THE LOST (2008). One could also say this script is a revisionist version of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR; that films tortured innocent being substituted for the voracious amazonian cannibal clan leader of OFFSPRING. But while Cleek commits atrocities to The Woman that aren't too far removed from what she and her now dead clan had perpetrated on their victims, the difference lies in that one ferociously bathes in neolithic tendencies and the other hides them from those outside the family unit.

One constant that those who will love or hate this film can agree on is that it's incredibly misogynistic. There are those who state the movie glorifies it and others that say it denounces it; that this production is actually about the empowerment of women. If anything, OFFSPRING had more of a dominant female core than this film does. The title Woman held fierce sway over her cannibalistic clan. Here, she is helpless through much of the movie. Furthermore, this is one of those movies with a certain level of subtext that will allow every viewer to come away with their own interpretation. It becomes quickly apparent that the head of the Cleek household has a serious dislike for women and this only swells till the ball-busting conclusion when McKee and company body slam the viewer into 70s exploitation territory. Upon capturing this wild woman, one wonders why he doesn't simply call the police. Cleek's quirky peculiarities are amplified by the near constant rapture of barking dogs. Just what does he keep out there in the cages with them? Subtle nuances involving his terrified daughter Peggy and the foreboding evil emanating from the youngest son, Brian reveal that this is a seriously dysfunctional family of the highest order.

Misogyny is defined as being 'the hatred of women'. There are many movies that tackle this topic; some glorify it for sensationalist purposes and others outright condemn it. THE WOMAN is such an experience, although it muddies the water making it unclear as to what it's truly trying to say. This is both a visual and visceral experience and you will take away from it what you will. Regardless of how you feel about it, misogyny is a subject that is seriously broached here and one that runs rampant throughout going completely wild during the finale. The Man forces The Woman to eat at her feet; cleans her in a humiliating sequence with a high pressure washer; slaps and punches his wife around at the first sign of disobedience or question of authority; The Man rapes The Woman then slips comfortably back into bed next to his wife; disbelieves his wife regarding one of the films many revolting sequences; Brian, the son, seems pleased while watching a little girl being bullied; he exacts revenge on a schoolgirl for beating him in basketball by putting gum in her comb; Both father and son revel in the unmitigated destruction of the female form during the last 15 minutes--a wildly perverse denouement that words cannot accurately describe.

I would say it's a logical assumption that this picture does not condone violence towards women. Considering what The Woman did in the previous movie, an argument could be made she is getting a taste of what she dished out to her victims. But what of the others? There are two wonderfully edited sequences here amidst the widespread nihilism. One speaks volumes without the use of dialog and another is an asymmetrical sequence that bonds several emotions together all at once. The former is a moment wherein Belle (Bettis) may or may not free herself from the constricting binds of her distracted husband while The Woman grimaces in approval. The latter is a collage of mini scenes (such as Belle buying groceries and trying to maintain her composure while chatting with a friend) cut together evoking numerous bits of exposition with little to no dialog ably aided by a song on the soundtrack.

So is THE WOMAN a misogynist fantasy? Of course it is. The ONSCREEN hatred of women is glaringly apparent and personified by Chris Cleek and his devoted son, Brian. Up until the end, I don't feel it glorifies this violence or demeaning treatment, but presents it as an ugly, abhorrent behavior. But again, the way some of these scenes play out, some viewers will likely come away with conflicting viewpoints. Much like I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978), you have to endure 80 minutes of pain and suffering for a 20 minute payoff, and by then, you're ready for it. Some may take issue with that, but "good" triumphs in the end as appalling as it may be. Is this a movie about the empowerment of women? I don't think so. The only female who manages to usurp her confinement is the title character and she is anything but lacking in strength. Judging by the 25 minute 'making of' on the DVD, everybody had a great time making this offensively absorbing little movie.

Horror is supposed to hit a nerve. If it doesn't, it wasn't necessarily successful in its mission. THE WOMAN hits multiple nerves. It also has multiple agendas. One of them is to tell a provocative story and shock you along the way. Granted, by the end, unabashed exploitation takes center stage and this is where the misogyny is at its most abrasive and sensational. Whatever the filmmakers feelings are on their work, they've succeeded in garnering the required reaction which all depends on what you take away from this movie much in the way Pascal Laugier's MARTYRS (2008) pummeled its viewers. It's nigh impossible to watch that movie without being affected in some way. THE WOMAN works on much the same levels in its tinkering with audience perception. It may not have the same sort of profound, semi religious message at its core, but it speaks on multiple levels including domestic abuse, chauvinism, what goes on behind closed doors and the squashing of a taboo subject or two.

The performances are all extraordinarily top notch. Pollyanna McIntosh reeks of charismatic savagery in her mostly silent performance. Hopefully, this delightfully imposing actress will go on to a successful career in the acting field. Uncharacteristically of The Woman, there's two incredible moments of poignancy where the film attains a brief instance of remorse for both her--and fleetingly--her captor. Immediately after cleansing the ferocious female (she musters the word 'please'!), Chris has her dressed, gives her water and a good meal. Scarfing it down and allowing The Man to get close to her without "snapping" at him, her near starved and tired body looks up and repeats the words "Thank you." The movie never again approaches this kind of semi dramatic solace, but it's morbidly touching that such a moment is in there. Granted, this moment of congeniality from Chris is short lived. While she's the central freak on display, The Woman isn't the main attraction.

Sean Bridgers epitomizes the dark soul that exists in all of us. He is "The Man" to this films "Woman". But then, the films title could also stand for all women and the struggles they face in destructively violent relationships. The Abused Woman; The Pregnant Woman; The Neglected Woman; The Strong Woman. Bridgers character is every woman's worst nightmare for a significant other; a vicious, evil man masquerading as a devout family man leaving no clues for friends and neighbors to sense the dark soul housed within. The actor pulls it off with gleeful abandon. He's quite insane and the lengths of his depravity are hinted at without any graphic depiction till the wildly over the top finale. Angela Bettis is strong as the weak-willed wife trying to cope with being the stay-at-home-mom living a lie hiding her miserable existence while pretending to be the happy housewife. Her performance is another strong link among a chain of grand performances.

The extraordinary soundtrack is the work of Sean Spillane. It's made up of a string of powerful quasi ballads that mimic and mock the onscreen action. These even include a rollickingly catchy country-rock tune entitled 'Complicated Woman'. It's also in this area where some may take issue with the films intentions considering some of these songs make light of the overly sensitive subject matter. However, the non-vocal tracks are just as grim as the scenes they're married to. The sound design and editing are also of a high caliber. These add immensely to the whole nerve shattering experience for a film that is going to raise more than a few eyebrows, cause a few jaws to hit the floor and upset more than a few stomachs. In the end, it's one of the most masterfully mounted perverse pieces of filth filmmaking to emerge in a long time. Director Lucky McKee was anything but that in making this film. He simply hit a horror home run using his skills armed with a love for the material and the genre in general.

This review is representative of the Vivendi Entertainment DVD


George Beremov [Nebular] said...

Unfortunately, I couldn't disagree more. I hated every minute of it, and thought this was one of the worst horror films I've seen in my entire life. Cheap, absurd and terribly-crafted.

Unknown said...

I have a feeling I would watch it, and just there and just get pissed off.

Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

I haven't seen this, but I have seen two other works from Lucky McKee...MAY and his MASTERS OF HORROR episode SICK GIRL, and based on those two films I'm not particularly eager to see anything else by him.

Maynard Morrissey said...

hate it about as much as Neb. Indeed a love-it-or-hate-it movie.

venoms5 said...

@ George: Watching this I got the feeling it was going to be one of those types of movies that would stir either adoration or a deep seething hatred, lol. I found it to be very well made despite the horrendous violence on display.

@ Max: The lady friend who watched this with me was seriously disturbed afterward. Said it tore her nerves all to pieces, lol. She wanted to see it, though. I was gonna wait and watch it by myself since the words Jack and Ketchum aren't associated with family entertainment, lol.

@ Shaun: I'm not sure how you would take to this, Shaun. I never got to see MAY, nor the MOH episode, but this movie definitely made an impression on me. It very much seemed like a refurbished version of Ketchum's THE GIRL NEXT DOOR. If you've seen that, than you have some idea of what's in this, but visualized in a more insidiously whimsical way.

@ Harry: I just revisited your review. I read it when you posted it recently. I did find the level of misogyny disturbing here, but the way it was shot, it wasn't overly gratuitous...till the finale. At that point, I was in almost disbelief at what I was seeing. A daring, different approach to this kind of material and one I found a lot to admire about.

Thanks for the feedback, guys! It's refreshing to hear counterpoints to get others perspectives versus ones own. I find it helps in further assessments down the road. :)

Kaijinu said...

I'll watch it, so long as the "domesticators" will get their just desserts.

Aaron said...

Great review! Took me two days to read it (just kidding), but you bring up a lot of valid points and argue your case well. Indeed there are blatant misogynist elements throughout the film, but I still stand by what I said in regards to the actual movie itself not being misogynist, and by saying that I mean it's not glorifying the abuse of women, which you brought up in your review. As far as my claims of it being a "feminist" film, the point I was trying to make in my review was that people could argue that it's ultimately about female empowerment, but it doesn't necessarily have to be interpreted as such. By definition, suggesting that THE WOMAN is "feminist" is obviously wrong on my part, but everyone who reads my blog by now should know that I'm dumb and talk out of my ass half the time. I was inspired to include that in my review because of the footage of that weirdo at Sundance who was so offended by the movie and claimed it had no redeeming value.

With what I've seen and read of Ketchum's film adaptations and novels, he does seem to have a fixation with the abuse of women in some form or another, but, despite that, the female characters are strong-willed.

Oh, and I liked OFFSPRING!

venoms5 said...

@ Kaijinu: Yes, they get what's coming to them. The ending is totally insane.

@ Aaron: Allow me to apologize, Aaron. I wasn't singling yours out, I was just commenting on various things I read in other reviews prior to writing my own, your included. Reading your write up was what really got me even more interested in checking it out and this is one blind buy of recent memory that I was well satisfied with. I loved the score, too. It's on iTunes, btw.

I was actually startled at more than one instance during the soul shredding conclusion. What was up with that bizarre post end credits scene???

Curiously enough, the lady friend I watched this with, while the tone upset her immensely, she viewed it as a man-hater movie, which I thought was an unusual point of view; a movie about hatred of men!

I liked OFFSPRING, too, just felt it was a lesser effort compared to the other Ketchum adapted movies. He's one writer who has seriously made me interested in reading his novels. Regarding THE WOMAN, I found it a shocking and masterfully executed movie and I look forward to what McKee and Ketchum does next.

Aaron said...

I actually reactivated my iTunes account JUST so I could buy the soundtrack. Unfortunately my favorite track in the film (the synth number at the beginning) isn't on the album, but oh well.

As far as the post-credits thing, I didn't see it! Had I known there was something else, I would have fast forwarded to the end. Seeing as I got it from Netflix, it'll be a while before I go back and watch it, although I might just buy the DVD.

Yeah, it's interesting to get a female perspective from certain movies, especially horror. A friend of mine watched MARTYRS with his wife; he was shaken up by it, whereas his wife (not a horror fan) didn't see what the big deal was.

venoms5 said...

You probably saw it but iTunes has two different soundtracks. One is $9.99 and the other is $11.99 and has a couple extra tracks on it. I havent listened to them all yet to check about the one you wanted. iTunes is bad bout havin every version of a song but the one you want lol.

Aaron said...

Yeah, I got the more expensive version with the bonus tracks. It does have some of the instrumental, non-alt. rock songs of there, but not the one from the beginning.

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