Author: Simon Cogen
Like many horror films, Lucky McKee’s The Woman (2011) caused controversy from its first screening. [i] This video of the reaction of one audience member at the Sundance Film Festival says it all:
Certainly, The Woman scarred me the first time I saw it. Upon subsequent viewings, it lost none of its power, and while there are many films that present us with visions of real-life horror, McKee’s study of domestic abuse and extreme misogyny continues to haunt me five years after its initial release.
The Woman picks right up where 2009’s Offspring (also an adaptation of a Jack Ketchum book) left off. It’s a totally different beast though, and it is as much infused with Ketchum’s DNA as it is with McKee’s. That should come as no surprise at all since they collaborated on both the book and the screenplay. Ketchum’s predilection for tales of the inherent savagery in man, and McKee’s for the role women play in our patriarchal society, come to a head in the brutal and visceral masterpiece they created together.
What differentiates both adaptations, though, is that, unlike Offspring, The Woman plays with the notion of who the real monsters are. Now, “the savages are not the monsters” might seem like a tired cliché, and to a certain extent it is, but in the hands of McKee and Ketchum it becomes fresh, even poignant, and regains its status as an uncomfortable universal truth. This becomes even more true to the extent that The Woman is not so much about the divide between civilization and savagery as it is about how men try to “civilize” women or to expell the savagery perceived within them (in both cases, read: subjugate).
Supporting this claim is a sequence of scenes in which we’re introduced to the supposedly wholesome nuclear family consisting of father Chris Cleek (an awe-inspiring Sean Bridgers), Mother Belle (Angela Bettis), son Brian (Zach Rand), daughters Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and Darlin (Shyla Molhusen). These scenes clearly demonstrate that the women in this family are deeply traumatized and live by the laws of the father. Peggy ignores the boys who flirt with her and sees her father monitoring her behavior. Belle is expected to dote on her husband even when attending a friend’s barbeque. Darlin is scolded for showing affection to a similarly young boy.
The other man in the family, son Brian, is introduced as he’s intently, and with utter detachment, watching a little girl being bullied. Even as he walks away, we see him look back with equal measures of puzzlement and fascination. The audience recognizes that he’s already been instilled with the notion that women are inferior beings, but also that he’s drawn to them and doesn’t quite understand why. In a way, Brian is the “improved” version of his father, an almost pure psychopath. While his father is still driven by emotions,[ii] the boy wants to study women, slice them open, see what makes them tick. We are still given some indications that Brian too wants to assert his power over women,[iii] but he’s copying his father rather than acting out of spite, anger or hate. The father’s misogyny has passed on from one generation to another, but has mutated into something even more frightening because of his “boys will be boys” laissez-faire mentality.
A lesser director than McKee would have just shown the “big” set pieces (all involving the titular Woman, played by the fierce Pollyanna McIntosh), displaying the misogynist nature of the characters. If that were the case then the controversy surrounding its Sundance screening might have been justified. However, the fact that we are also shown the more “innocuous” moments of disdain that the male characters have for women proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that McKee’s ambitions are much loftier and not born from base emotions or from the desire to provide mere titillation and shock value. Yes, The Woman is shocking, but it’s always backed up by an intelligent and coherent auteurial vision.
Take the climax for example. Full of blood and gore, it also sports a subversive and multi-layered punchline. McKee shows The Woman forming a new family, the inversion of the nuclear family we’re shown at the beginning, but the kicker is that, for all its uncivilized nature, it’s infinitely more honest and wholesome. McKee’s message seems to be, if women want to break the vicious cycle of male toxicity, they need to escape from those men and form their own (all-)female community. However, this does not mean that any woman/female is welcome. Belle isn’t. Why? Willing change does not redeem you; enacting change is what saves you. Belle is too far gone, while Peggy can still be saved: she’s in limbo between the still impressionable Darlin and the forever lost Belle.
It’s been over 2 years since Lucky McKee regaled us with his last full length feature, the glorious All Cheerleaders Die (co-directed and co-written with Chris Sivertson). I believe it’s time he graced his fans, of which there are unfortunately still too few, with a new masterpiece, but in the meantime there’s always his novel (again, co-written with Jack Ketchum), coming out in November, The Secret Life of Souls.
[i] In this fascinating video, a viewer at the film’s premiere at Sundance in January 2011 claims that McKee’s The Woman is “not art,” that it is “degradation of women in the absolute way.” He says that the film should be burned, that it is “criminal,” and he points to a woman who “passed out in disgust.” And he goes on from there!
[ii] The first “meeting” between Chris Cleek and the woman is filmed as a perversion of that tired scene from every romantic comedy where a guy sees a girl and magically falls in love (in slo-mo and with a soundtrack). By doing this McKee takes on the father’s viewpoint here, which is anything but cold and detached: he’s still governed by his emotions even though he doesn’t want to be.
[iii] Brian squares off with a girl in free throws, a contest which he loses. To exact revenge, he sticks a piece of gum in her comb.
The only qualification Simon Cogen has to talk about film is that he watches a lot of them and reads a lot about the subject. His PhD in chemistry is completely useless (except for his day job) and he can barely snap a decent picture, but passion must count for something, right? Simon has written for a Belgian site called brainfreeze.be, where he was their resident horror guy. You can interact with him through twitter (@kowalski_raf), which he mostly uses to lurk about, and letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/nacho_cerda/).