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The Woman

September 5, 2011

Lucky McKee’s The Woman is really “Lucky McKee’s and Jack Ketchum’s The Woman“, since the film maker and novelist created the story, co-authoring the novel upon which the movie is based. Both have a pretty forceful reputation in the horror field, of course, including work that has overlapped before (the troubled Red, from 2008 ). They clearly understand one another and that sympatico vibe creates, if nothing else, a hit the ground running start for a movie that propels the viewer very quickly into a nightmare.

In an arresting opening sequence we’re given a dream, a bold move indeed, where the eponymous character is seen running through the darkness, encountering herself as an abandoned baby and being discovered by a wolf; yes, you see, The Woman is about a wild child, now in adulthood. But this is no Nell, for the woman is discovered not by a noble Liam Neeson type character, but by a complete asshole. Chris (a simply alarming Sean Bridgers) is a prize prick, who discovers the woman (Polyanna McIntosh) while out hunting and in what seems to be an astonishing move, decides to capture her and keep her in his barn.

Chris rules his family through a combination of fear and, well, fear. Outwardly, a charming and intelligent man (he runs a successful legal firm in the local town), behind closed doors he’s a manipulative bully. He introduces his wife and kids to the woman and tells them that they are going to civilize her. That this is so readily accepted seems to indicate that they live in complete thrall to such a monstrous man (it is an extraordinary development, their complicity, and will puzzle and trouble you right up until the climax).

This is handled very well towards the end of the movie’s first act. The dynamics playing out in this dysfunctional, scared family are remarkably well observed and addressed, particularly through the adolescent boy, Brian (Zach Rand), whose cautious and then, whoah, way not cautious, aping of his father, says in a few broad strokes everything you need to know about the dreadful misuse of power within families. Zach’s two sisters, one a moody insular teen, the other a wide-eyed innocent pre-teen, also sketch out the nastiness and predetermined paths they have been forced down. The horror should be coming from them, it is certainly bad enough, affecting enough, troubling enough.

But The Woman, despite this, seems to be far too keen to exploit the extreme plot point it has brooding away in the darkness. It is impossible to avoid the nastiness locked away, of course, and inexorably we move toward a conclusion where that extremity will be exposed. Much like deadgirl, another intense idea that could have worked right up until the moment where they insisted on making everything so real, The Woman cannot, unfortunately, waste the notion that there is a crazed amazon chained up, open to abuse and clearly very fucking dangerous should things get out of hand. Up to a point you might even get away with saying that she’s a cypher, a representation of everything the family fear in varying degrees: for the father, strong women; for the boy, sex; for the girls, enslavement. But in the third act, we have to, we simple have to, start ramping it all up and asking for a bit of blood.

I cannot tell you what happens as that would constitute a series of massive spoilers, but it is, for me, a third act that enjoys its crowd-pleasing self way too much, looks up Grand Guignol in the auteur’s dictionary and thinks, “I can do better than that”.

The Woman will be overshadowed for many by the viral video of a man walking out of a Sundance screening and decrying it for all manner of sexist crimes. Fair enough, in fact there is a bit of lingering on Mcintosh when she is stripped, there is a moment of cruelty that could have been played with more restraint, but that protester missed the point, I believe. The Woman is not the piece of shit he claims, for it has hidden away some excellent observations on gender and the blurring of family sexual boundaries (and yes, these may be easily missed, or at least the ending may erase them as it thunders along). It just doesn’t need the woman. Or the last 30 minutes, for that matter. In their eagerness to make a great horror movie, Ketchum and McKee didn’t realise that they could have cut out all the horror and still succeeded.

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