Director Lucky McKee has so far ironically been quite unlucky in his career. May was a great debut, a twisted take on the Frankenstein myth that didn’t catch on as it should have and ended up straight to DVD nearly everywhere. The Woods was an interesting idea but compromised by studio interference. Then he was fired from the film Red after just a few weeks. With The Woman, adapted from the novel by himself and Jack Ketchum, McKee has very definitely arrived. This may very well be the best film about the seedy dark underbelly of suburban America since Blue Velvet.
We begin the film with the Cleek family, on the surface a seemingly normal friendly American family enjoying a summer barbeque. As things progress we learn that the father Chris (Sean Bridgers) a successful lawyer, is casually abusive and lords over the family. His wife Belle (Angela Bettis) is living in fear of her husband and what he might do should she step out of line. Daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is becoming more and more withdrawn and raising the suspicions of her teachers and son Brian (Zach Rand) is a vindictive and spiteful little prick with some worrying habits. One day whilst out hunting Chris spots a feral woman (Pollyanna Macintosh) bathing in the forest and decides to kidnap her and take her home. Chaining up the woman in the shed, he brings her presence to the attention of his family intending her to be domesticated as a ‘family project’. As time goes on Chris’s real intentions with regards to his new pet become clear and the ties that hold the family together start to fray.
The Woman is an amazing film. It is many different things all at once. It’s a savage satire on suburban America and the nuclear family. It’s a pitch black comedy, a feminist masterpiece and, of course, it’s a brutal horror movie. The reception that the film garnered at Sundance this past January would have you believe that this is an exercise in brutality against women and a non stop torture fest. This is totally not that sort of film. The torture and brutality that the feral woman experiences whilst held captive is mostly implied and hinted at through clever editing. It’s somehow more effective rather than showing you the full extent of what happens. You know right at the start that something is seriously off with Chris and Brian Cleek and you know that they have sinister intentions towards the woman. The tension builds and builds towards the inevitable and when it happens, McKee has spent so much time subtly building these immoral characters that showing the full extent of their brutality would have been a disservice towards all the previously subtle character and tension building. When things reach boiling point in the final act of the film, McKee quite literally unleashes hell. The film gets graphic as characters get their just desserts but it feels cathartic and justified as well as being pleasing for gore hounds who may be scratching their heads as to what all the fuss is about.
A film like this rises and falls on the performances and thankfully the two central roles here are among the best performances of the year. Sean Bridgers is terrifying in this role, coming across like an evil Will Ferrell he is all smiling evil and calculated manipulation. It’s absolutely chilling because on the surface he is the picture of the hard working American family man but underneath something dark and terrible is hiding. The scenes where he goes about his day, casually flirting with any females he comes into contact with are horrid because you know what his home life is like. It is without doubt the best villain of the year. Pollyanna McIntosh as the woman is equally brilliant, she is also terrifying, right from the start she is a brutal force of nature. As the film goes on she reveals more and more humanity making it that much more satisfying when she does what she does in the full tilt climax. It’s a brave fearless performance and if there is any justice we should see more of her in the future. Angela Bettis and Lauren Ashley Carter as the Cleek’s wife and daughter figures are brilliantly fragile. Right from the start they are timid and seemingly on the verge of a breakdown and they sell it really well, ultimately becoming the main object of the audience’s sympathy. For a child actor this is probably a very risky role to take when you are just starting out but Zach Rand as the son is chilling as he truly is a chip off the old block. Like father like son is definitely the case and Rand gets this across with very little dialogue and often just a look or glassed over gaze as he does something terrible.
McKee’s directorial style is very reminiscent of Wes Anderson or Richard Kelly and The Woman is a very stylised well made film. McKee uses a brilliant soundtrack with songs written by Sean Spillane combined with slow motion to ironically score and shoot scenes which in another directors hands would have been straight out chilling. McKee goes for black comedy time and again in scenes which are profoundly disturbing. Again I feel that in less subtle filmmaker’s hands this could have been unwatchable. It all comes together with the performances, editing, cinematography and soundtrack to make The Woman something you will never forget.
The phrase ‘The Future of Horror’ is bandied about too liberally sometimes but with The Woman and a cinema release, Lucky McKee has truly arrived. The Woman is a powerful, brutal and beautiful film that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Horror, as true horror fans know, is something that should make you uncomfortable and The Woman is that film as well as something to make you think.
Expected Rating: 6 out of 10
The Woman is on limited release in the UK from September 30th, and available to buy on DVD/Blu-ray from October 17th