Thursday, November 17, 2011

REVIEW: The Woman (2011)

Even though I saw Lucky McKee's The Woman a while ago, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about it. It definitely subverted the expectations I had for it, which were undoubtedly influenced by the news of walkouts (excuse me, “runouts”) and audience members becoming sick in the aisles at recent fest screenings. Setting the hype to the side, it's still a pretty uncomfortable film to watch, although not always for the reasons you anticipate.

The Woman is supposedly a loose sequel to 2009's Offspring – an intermittently fun and consistently stupid film about a pack of wild cannibals running loose on the pacific coast. I'm not even sure why the connection to The Woman needs to be drawn though. Aside from sharing the concept of a feral woman, the two have nothing in common in terms of structure, tone, or even intent. The Woman focuses on what appears to be a typical upper-middle class suburban family who is mildly shocked (although not as much as you’d think) when Dad goes hunting and brings back a grime-covered woman he’s found wandering around. Dad has a great and generous plan to teach her how to be civilized, and the whole family will have to chip in to help in order for this ambitious plan to work.

It’s an interesting premise, but I’m going to have to spoil most of the film in order to discuss it, so be warned.

The suggestion in the first half of the film (and by nearly all of the press material) that there's going to be a profound message about civilized society versus nature turns out to be just a ruse. The hints that Dad is a misogynistic psychopath holding his family emotionally captive are present all along, but they're integrated into the context of the film as a social satire. Once it's revealed that he is in fact crazy, his family's acceptance of the bizarre notion that this Woman is going to be held captive in their storm shelter suddenly makes sense. He's forced them into a domestic autocracy where no decision of his is questioned without swift physical punishment. But it's a far less interesting truth than is hinted at during the setup of the film, and it undercuts your ability to read anything meaningful into the film. It's a clever bait-and-switch though, especially because it seems to hint that McKee is throwing up a giant middle finger at anyone looking to distill any profound meaning from the film. Still, the true story is less interesting than the one you're expecting, and if not for the clever lead-up into it, we'd be watching something that retreads old ground.

Compare The Woman to the rape/revenge flicks of the past - it's reasonably similar in structure, and the thing that it truly has in common is that there's such a high sleaze-factor that isn’t often incorporated into modern films. A lot of old rape/revenge films are really unpalatable – especially now, when we're all entering the theater hyper-aware of political correctness. Such films are routinely picked apart looking for subtexts, and you've got to wonder if that's the only way that audiences today can stand to view them. Examining such a film under the lens of female empowerment makes it somewhat more tolerable, yes, but does it change the core concept of the film? Does the ten-minute long rape scene in I Spit On Your Grave become shorter depending on how you interpret it?

The Woman seems to be aware of how audiences are going to read it and sets up all its pieces in such a way that you're guided along until the final act of the film when the rug is pulled out from underneath you. No, we're not watching an allegory here – this is a very straightforward story about a sick man, made seemingly more tolerable initially by the way it's presented. Viewing a monster as a metaphor lessens the reality of its deeds, but once this safe interpretation is destroyed, the truth becomes all the more harder to bear. Following the big reveal, McKee really kicks things into overdrive. The gore is never watered down at any point in the film, but it's turned up several notches in the end. Once the cards are all on the table, the blood flows as freely as the film is finally liberated to roll around in its exploitative filth.

And in a way, I commend McKee for not being afraid to eventually cast off all the postmodern trappings and give us sleaze for the sake of sleaze. The trend of introducing a slight amount of satire into horror has always bothered me a little bit, since it seems to suggest that horror films aren't able to be appreciated on their own merit unless we're simultaneously laughing at their shortcomings. McKee is fully aware of the “rules” of the genre, but then uses them to subvert and shock rather than poke fun.  This is why I suspect the film is getting such violent reactions – because those viewers who would normally be gone at the drop of a hat go in hoping for some intellectual stimulation, and are tricked into watching a film that presents vileness free from context.

The downside is that the true film is essentially old ground re-tread. In order to prime you to read the film the way he wants, McKee introduces a number of elements which weaken it. It's somewhat difficult to reconcile the day-glo suburban atmosphere with the torrid abuse going on within the home, and it also gives the film an air of a made-for-TV teen drama. The inclusion of a relatively upbeat alt-rock soundtrack just strengthens that feeling. It may be that these choices were made to try and induce a little bit of ironic levity to the dark material we're being shown, but they don't always click.

I'd have to watch the film again to see how these thoughts hold up, and I'm not anxious to do that for a while. This film will undoubtedly be labeled torture porn and dismissed by many because of it, but the fact that I'm still thinking about it days afterwards speaks to its strengths. While it's not the most consistent film, I'm inclined to believe that quite a bit of thought was put into it. This makes it worth checking out, especially if you’re looking for an alternative to the popcorn gore of some recent (unnamed) horror franchises, and like your horror filled with the grit, nastiness, and downright mean-spiritedness that the best exploitation films of yesterday adopted.


  1. I might have to rewatch this, but I seem to remember McKee going out of his way to film the rape/torture scenes in ways that didn't totally fetishize and eroticize what was happening... (especially the scene where the young son is torturing the woman)

    A couple of thoughts: I think the soundtrack to the movie was really obtrusive and undercut the whole endeavor.
    That having been said, Angela Bettis as the mom fucking ROCKED my world. That moment where she tries to stand up to the father... and his steely voice comes out of her little body that you didn't think she had in her. Amazing.

    1. Hmm, it's been a while for me too, so I don't really remember how the torture scenes were filmed. I think McKee is smart enough to avoid totally exploiting the rape scenes. I do remember him letting loose at the end though, although I'd really have to rewatch to see if my initial impressions held up.

      Total agreement for that soundtrack (oof, regardless of whether it was there for metacommentary), and Angela Bettis.