For those of you waiting for my 2011 Top Ten list, it’s going to be another week or so until I start rolling out the reviews. I want it to be a final list, and there are a few films in theatres and on DVD (16, to be exact) I’m catching up on before I finalize my list. I’m going to attempt to publish reviews for all of the films I’m now watching that don’t make the list. The goal of this blog has always been to review whatever I see in the theatre, but I’ve decided to also include specific films on DVD/Blu-Ray as well. All of this brings me to my first review of a film not still in theatres, The Woman.
I have to admit this if my first Lucy McKee film, though I do intend to go back and see all of his stuff, starting with his cult favorite, May. I jumped ahead to this one in my Top Ten rush, since I’d been meaning to see it a few months ago but it escaped theatres before I could fit it into my busy schedule. It’s co-written by Jack Ketchum, in what I believe to be his first original screenplay. Other films he’s been involved with have been adaptations of his books, as to-date he’s been a novelist. I’ve read a couple of Ketchum books, and I should preface this review with a note about how I feel about his work. Ketchum is a very good writer. There are many horror writers out there who are sub-par and sell books simply because the content of their writing appeals to a certain kind of genre fan. Ketchum deserves full credit for the quality of his craft, and were he to step out of the genre and write something more mainstream-accessible his readership would be drastically different and he could have a very different career. If he were to write a bit more poetically, he wouldn’t be far off from Cormac McCarthy. But… I can’t really enjoy his books. For me there is a fundamental problem with them being too dark and having nothing very redeeming about them. And I am someone who loves dark books and films, media that can capture how we feel at our worst, and help shine a light to give us some hope and lead us back to humanity. But Ketchum’s books present humanity at their worst, with little to no reedeming value, and with nothing redemptive. You will witness horrible atrocities being commited, with the sole point seeming to be a statement of “this is how bad we really are.” And I understand where Ketchum is coming from. When you look at the world today, there is much to support that point-of-view. And there is so little being done by so many, a seeming majority who wallow in this muck around us and seem to prefer it, whose morality and politics are aimed to keep us as a society in the muck. But I know this. I see it around me. And to spend my free time ingesting something that continues to beat me over the head with what I already know is an omni-present problem without offering any kind of a solution or at least a shred of hope– it’s just not something I feel I have the time for in my limited days left on planet earth, or anything that is at all helpful or meaningful to my existence.
And that, ultimately, is the same problem I have with Lucky McKee’s The Woman. I usually stay away from hashing through plot because I feel that it’s inconsequential. If you’re reading a review, you already have some idea of what something is about, and you’re looking for more information. And for something like Haywire, all you really need to know is that it’s a female spy thriller. What’s more important to me in a review is discussing the film’s quality and its elements. Then you can decide if you think that particular female spy thriller is worth your time, if you even like female spy thrillers to begin with. But I’m going to assume not everyone knows what The Woman is. In fact, even those who have heard of The Woman may not realize that it’s a de-facto sequel featuring a character from another Ketchum book that was adapated into the film Offspring, about a tribe of feral cannibals. What’s interesting is that Lucky McKee and Ketchum decided to collaborate and make a sequel to that film directly, without Ketchum first penning a sequel novel. So the original book spawned a film adaptation that spawned a sequel, with a different director but the same lead actress and the writer of both the original novel and subsequent adapted screenplay writing a new, original screenplay. From a purely creative standpoint, that kind of synergy intrigues me.
The plot of The Woman finds Pollyana McIntosh, reprising her role as this feral cannibal, captured by local attorney Chris Cleek while hunting in the acreage around his property. Cleek decides that his family should all pitch in and help to civilize this woman, who he keeps chained up in an outdoor storm basement. And so the hypocrisy begins. The performances by the adults are all quite good. McIntosh is a force of nature as the woman, Angela Bettis is excellent as Cleek’s long-suffering and subservient wife, and Sean Bridgers (probably best know for playing Al Swearengen’s right-hand man Johnny Burns on Deadwood) finds a lot of shades to Cleek. Cleek is the sort of well-educated small-town conservative who’s a big fish in a small pond and, as a result, has a secret God complex. He doesn’t see anything wrong with smacking his wife around, and is very comfortable being the voice of authority, accustomed to everyone following his stated orders. It’s probably part of the reason he chooses to remain in a small town where his success can only take him so far; he knows he won’t encounter much opposition, and he can easily rule the roost. And when he’s not practicing law in a suit and tie, he’s home at backyard barbeques or riding his ATV around and hunting. He’s a good ol’ boy and small-town conservative at heart. And Bridgers plays him as genial and affable, with a certain amount of charm and charisma. It’s a character choice that serves well to counterbalance what lies at Cleek’s heart, and that we come to see over the course of The Woman. And ironically, his attitude towards the feral woman remains affable throughout, obviously it’s his defensive personality of choice: act sociable and gregarious and life will go your way. But his darker persona and control issues are directed more and more at those closest to him as he loses control and the upper hand with what he sees as his latest project.
While Bridgers was good, I think he missed what would have made the role much richer and given the film a lot more meaning. Instead of covering his darker nature with a visible affability and gregariousness, which I believe we’re intended to be able to see through, it would have been a much stronger choice for Bridgers to play a kind of moral rightness. For him to be certain, unequivocally, of his actions and behavior. Because of the transparency of his “social personality,” we know it’s simply a cover for an evil man. But if the man were to be convinced in his heart that his flawed, human nature served a higher purpose and was in some way then divine, I think the film would open up with a lot more subtext. Part of the reason The Woman starts to fall apart is simply the fact that Cleek decides to chain this woman in their basement and socialize her. You can’t but help watch the film and wonder why no one’s calling the police. As disturbed as some of the family members are, and as brow-beaten as the wife is, McKee still initially portrays them as socially-functioning suburbanites. Were he to have shown a relatively normal family devolving around this circumstance, and to make that circumstance of deciding to keep the woman and socialize her themselves more realistic and believable, The Woman would have been a powerful and compelling film.
HUGE SPOILERS BELOW
Again, I’m not usually a fan of revealing information about a film, but I can’t really explain what I didn’t like about this film without going there, so be forewarned. The first part of my problem with The Woman, as mentioned above, is Bridgers’ performance and the way the setup with chaining the woman in the basment borders on the absurd. But there are also problems with McIntosh’s character. She’s pure force of nature. Her victimization doesn’t even seem to bother her; it’s just another circumstance of the survival that is her life. A little more humanity would have gone a long way to humanizing her. But that was obviously not the intent.
When Cleek is chaining her up, and she bites off his finger, bloodily chews and swallows it whole while grinning at him, then spits his wedding ring onto the floor, The Woman is absolutely audacious. And the way Cleek reacts, to not really be bothered by the loss of his finger but to simply take it as a minor setback in the pursuance of his latest goal, it’s character-defining, crazy, and quite brilliant in how it sets itself apart from other films. And at the end of the film, watching the woman rip Cleek’s heart from his chest and take a bite out of it while he’s still alive and watching, well, I can’t think of a crazier way to die, and McKee certainly gets points for the holy-shit-wtf factor. But again, all of this makes the character of the woman less a human being for us to sympathize with than an allegorical force of nature raining hellfire and brimstone down on Cleek’s rotting existence.
Yet, Cleek himself is no everyman. Through the course of the film we learn that his daughter is pregnant, and though it’s never revealed who the father is, the probability is on the high side that it’s Cleek himself. After all, he rapes the woman in the basement, so who’s to say he hasn’t done something similar to his daughter? And finally, there is the carnivorous gimp bastard that the Cleeks keep chained in with the dobermans in the garage. That just shoots the film into a whole other stratosphere. We have to assume that this is some malformed child Cleek had with his wife. And Cleek’s son seems not to be phased by it, which means that the entire family has been a party to this over a period of years, as well as whatever Cleek has been doing out in the garage with the dogs, which his wife mentions would get him arrested. That likely has to do with breeding and training dogs for fighting, and we witness Cleek throwing his daughter’s school teacher in with the dogs to be ripped apart and eaten. So let’s assume that he’s actually been training them to eat humans as well, and that the teacher isn’t an isolated incident.
The end of the film is more confusing than anything else. The youngest Cleek daughter suckles the gore on the woman’s finger, not yet having developed society’s moral code and therefore not being scared of her, and appears to be accepted by the woman in turn; then she, the woman, and the gimp seemingly head off for a feral life in the forest together. Peggy, the terrified older and pregnant daughter, is left behind as the family’s sole “surviving” member. Peggy is perhaps the only character in the film who we can sympathize with. Are we supposed to be glad she survived the destruction of her insane family? Are Ketchum and McKee trying to make a statement that both the abused (the gimp) and the uncorrupted (the youngest daughter) are both better off in the amoral feral wild than in contemporary society, which is even more corrupt and markedly evil? It’s not really clear, but such simplistic conclusions seem unlikely. And if McKee was setting out to tell a story about a girl with a truly fucked-up family, whose destruction is brought about when the father finds a feral woman, and the family is supposed to represent society and the feral woman is supposed to represent nature, and the point of the film was to portray the confusion we feel at not being able to make a good choice between two bad choices, then he would have been much better off telling it from Peggy’s perspective and making it more deeply personal from that point-of-view. What we’re left with is a thematic film-in-a-blender that doesn’t appear to know what it’s trying to say, except for the fact that humanity is pretty unredeemable, and that life is brutal.
So McKee does an about-face during the telling of The Woman. What appears as though it may be a deconstruction of a typical dysfunctional family is thrown a wrench when the woman herself is never humanized. That also prevents the movie from being a pure revenge fantasy. But as the true nature of the family itself is revealed, which puts them more in line with the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while wearing more socially acceptable pseudo-suburbanite sheep’s clothing, there’s really no one left to care about and no one to root for. Again, this tale seems to exist solely to prove how reprehensible humanity is. I can give McKee points for some of the sheer audaciousness and for not being afraid to go to some of the places he takes the film, but that’s really most of what the film has to recommend it. A couple of the acting performances are bad and detract from the overall quality; the girl who plays Peggy is not very good, and the young woman playing her teacher is downright terrible. Still, a couple of bad performances don’t matter either way when the larger problems are thematic schizophrenia and general purposelessness.