THE WOMAN (2011) + OFFSPRING (2009)
When a father attempts to "civilise" the last remaining member of a violent clan that's roamed the Northeast coast for decades, he puts his own family in jeopardy.
Lucky McKee is a filmmaker we should all be familiar by now. He made an impact within the horror community with his compelling chiller May (2002). It was during the production of Offspring (2009), an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum novel, that director Andrew Van Den Houten (Headspace) realised the feral character known as ‘The Woman’ deserved a sequel. So, after collaborating on the revenge thriller Red (2008), McKee and Ketchum began to write a sequel to Offspring that became the third instalment of his Dead River literary series, The Woman.
The Woman film adaptation immediately caused controversy and outrage at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The director’s approach to gender politics even caused one viewer to leave the screening! Claiming the feature should be confiscated and burned, he ranted “this is not art. This is the degradation of women in an absolute way.” After this reaction, many would expect a shocker akin to The Human Centipede (2009) or A Serbian Film (2010). However, McKee’s fourth feature is nowhere as unpleasant as those two horrors, having more similarities to harrowing French masterpiece Martyrs (2008).
Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) is the patriarch of a seemingly perfect American family. His wife, Belle (Angela Bettis), is a traditional housewife straight out of the 1950s who cooks, cleans, and nurtures their children. Their daughter, Peggy (Lauren Ashely Carter), is the oldest child, their son Brian (Zach Rand) is in middle school, and they have a younger daughter called Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). However, we soon discover a darker side to Chris. While out hunting in the woods, he stumbles upon a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) and, after capturing her, he decides to bring her back to his home. Upon chaining her up in the barn, he tells his family it’s their job to “civilise” her. The Cleeks will soon learn, however, that Hell Hath No Fury Like ‘The Woman’ Scorned…
Mckee cast brilliant performers who play their roles extraordinarily well. The tone is set by Sean Bridgers’ (Sweet Home Alabama) sinister Chris, as we’re introduced to the patriarch of the Cleek family as he stands on a porch scoping his front yard… high enough to see his family, as they nervously look over their shoulders, knowing they’re being watched. Instantly there are signs that beneath his seemingly quiet and charming exterior, he rules his family with an iron fist. Bridgers delivers one of the creepiest portraits of middle-class insanity since Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather (1987). His portrayal of the callous and psychopathic father will simultaneously make audiences angry and upset.
Opposite Bridgers is McKee regular Angela Bettis (May) as his tyrannised wife Belle. Her soft demeanour is that of a beaten woman; someone who may have been abused physically, but is beaten down emotionally. Bettis nails the role of a tortured mother. Lauren Ashely Carter (Imitation Girl) also excels as troubled teenager Peggy, subtly mirroring our fear and disgust as her emotions gradually reach boiling point. Her performance will keep one on the edge of your seat, as we wait the moment she gains the strength to do what’s right. Young Zach Rand makes his debut as the middle child, Brian, making audiences uncomfortable by playing his character with such a dead-eyed and uncaring creepiness, like he’s following in his father’s footsteps.
The Woman belongs to Pollyanna McIntosh (The Walking Dead) however. In a powerhouse performance, she carries the feature after a standout performance in Offspring as the head of a pact of predatory cannibals living in the woods. The actress shows complete commitment once again as she reprises the role of the feral Woman, going where most actresses wouldn’t dare as she’s stripped, beaten, and treated like a dog. She takes her punishments with a menacing sneer and a ferocious growl. And despite being strung up with chains and having no distinguishable dialogue she communicates entirely in grunts and gestures throughout. She’s simultaneously beautiful yet terrifying, echoing Jenny Spain in Dead Girl (2008).
Beginning where Offspring ended, we’re introduced to the Woman as she stumbles through a forest. Nursing an old wound, she’s unworldly yet innocent… until Chris captures her and attempt to “civilise” her inside his barn. As the first act plays out, there are similarities here of François Truffaut’s The Wild Child (1970)—a true story about an everyday family educating a wild child found in a forest—but McKee and Ketchum have anything but standard moral sympathies in mind.
After being chained up in Cleek’s barn, Chris examines The Woman’s body like a creepy doctor. Inspecting her teeth and touching her breasts inappropriately, she bites down on his fingers we see tendons and flesh tear before she slowly chews his finger…. spitting out his wedding ring into a pool of his own blood. Once he knocks her unconscious, it’s clear the filmmaker is subverting our expectations. It’s difficult to discuss the feature without divulging any spoilers. Nevertheless, be warned, The Woman eventually plays out like an inverse Deliverance (1972).
McKee and Ketchum’s screenplay blends the horror, thriller, and drama genres and is surprisingly effective when it comes to maintaining suspense and eeriness. Despite the title, the horror in The Woman isn’t the feral cannibal chained up in the barn, but paternal abuse within a family unit. Like a hybrid of Parents (1989) and American Beauty (1999), the idealised all-American family is revealed to have a bleak undercurrent that bubbles to the surface. From the opening moments, it’s clear there is a repressed sense of fear over the downtrodden family because of their father. It’s not until the first shocking moment when the cracks begin to appear. Belle cautiously questions Chris’s pet project, asking “are you sure we should be doing this?”, only for him to hit her in the face before cheerfully returning to bed as though nothing happened.
Unlike Van Den Houten’s effort, McKee uses horror violence sparingly. He pulls back and allows the use of one of the most under-utilised tools to fill in the blanks: our imagination. A simple scene sees Chris sitting on Peggy’s bed, scratching her back telling her that he loves her. Nothing is known about their relationship at this point, except what’s conveyed by his daughter’s body language. But everything about the way Chris interacts with his family is calibrated to cause maximum discomfort, forcing one to examine the dynamics of each situation. What’s most disturbing is how grounded in reality The Woman actually is. The Cleek’s could be your neighbours and you wouldn’t realise what was going on behind their door.
It’s easy to misinterpret The Woman as a misogynistic exploitation flick. Early scenes are similar to Ketchum’s previous adaptation The Girl Next Door (2017), and later scenes echo of I Spit On Your Grave (1978). Female characters are abused, sexually molested, degraded, and viewed as objects rather than human beings. However, McKee is well-known for being a feminist filmmaker and shows these uncomfortable scenes for a reason. Beneath the surface, the director’s idea of women is a harbinger of wrath for all of the abusers and those who sit by watching it happen. We see terrible things happening to them, but it’s not exploitation. The male characters are weak and insecure. It’s not until the dramatic and bloody finale that the filmmaker’s message is made clear. It’s a cautionary tale to respect the power of women.
Understandably, directors who explore these controversial themes are likely to face accusations they’re revelling in the thing they seem to condemn. Some may say it’s incredibly prejudiced, whereas others will argue it’s the indomitable strength of female empowerment. Offspring had more of a dominant female core than The Woman, but it’s clear throughout McKee’s movie that his sympathies are with women. With the traumatised wives and daughters that have suffered at the hands of someone like Chris. The women are the stars of the show, and although some fall by the wayside, in the end, it’s the women who are left standing.
If you’re familiar with McKee’s previous films, you should know he likes to make bold stylistic choices. Stating on the commentary track that he “wanted to shoot a horror film in which the most horrific incidents took place in broad daylight”, he manages to capture everything with an almost David Lynchian candy-coated glow. And that’s effective because it juxtaposes with the sickening secret locked in the Cleek family barn. However, there are times when the assured hand behind May seems to have been replaced with a novice filmmaker. Besides the excessive use of slow-motion and dissolve cuts, the director often intersperses his narrative with jarring rock songs instead of a traditional score. McKee has defended his choice stating it’s used as satire, but I’d argue it dampens several of the dramatic sequences.
Overall, The Woman isn’t a comfortable movie to watch. It’s perverse, shocking, and stomach-churning. Using Jack Ketchum’s screenplay and novel as its backbone, Lucky McKee has certainly created a controversial talking piece. Focussing on toxic masculinity and domestic violence both psychical and psychological, it examines the part of America people aren’t so willing to admit exists. Although the second act moves at a snail’s pace, it pays off to stick with this disturbing journey to the end. The cast is excellent all around, but special recognition has to go to Pollyanna McIntosh’s tour de force performance. She is The Woman, and you will hear her roar.
USA | 2011 | 101 MINUTES | 1.78:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
The Woman is released on Blu-ray courtesy of Arrow Video, featuring a complete 4K restoration supervised and approved by director Lucky McKee. Presented with the original widescreen aspect ratio of 1:78:1, the picture detail is crisp and vivid, especially during the daylight exterior sequences. Skin tones and clothing textures during close-ups are prominently detailed, with each fibre and strand of hair clearly visible. The foliage and wood grains are especially striking during the scenes when Chris is in the woods. What’s most impressive are the black levels. Plenty of scenes take place in the gloomy family barn and here the blacks are inky, whereas the shadows manage to standout enough preventing the image to blend into one. It’s easy to make out the Woman’s dark grimy face against the shadowy background.
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix balances the dialogue and effects well. The outdoor scenes provide ambience and deliver a wide dynamic range. Sound FX such as bird tweets and barking dogs can be heard clearly off-camera, too, whereas the more aurally violent sequences featuring the Woman chained up in the barn surround the soundstage. A series of rattling chains, grunts, and various other sounds of torment can be heard with clarity. The sound FX make use of the audio balance perfectly, especially during a scene when Chris shoots a gun next to the Woman’s ear. A deafening high pitched tone surrounds the soundstage placing one in the middle of the scene. One issue is the use of Sean Spillane’s soundtrack, however, as it often overpowered the master track, resulting in having to fiddle with the volume button occasionally.
director: Lucky McKee.
writers: Jack Ketchum & Lucky McKee.
starring Pollyanna McIntosh, Angela Bettis, Sean Bridgers, Lauren Ashley Carter, Carlee Baker, Alexa Marcigliano, Zach Rand & Shyla Molhusen.