Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review: The Woman

by Patrick Bromley
To see Lucky McKee's new movie, The Woman, is to be reminded of what slick, hollow trash most studio horror is these days.

As horror fans, we are all too aware of our own mistreatment, constantly whining about the state of the genre and how it's become clogged with pointless remakes and "torture porn." Then we make Marcus Nispel's shitty remake of Friday the 13th the number one movie at the box office the weekend of its release and jump online to write about how this year's Fright Night remake is "pretty good" (it is not pretty good). And, yet, when things do get better -- even for just a week in limited release -- we don't do enough about it.

The Woman is the kind of movie we should be holding up and championing. It's the movie we should be seeking out and suggesting that other horror fans do the same. It's the movie we should be making a success so that Lucky McKee is able to make more movies and studios are more inclined to fund original, personal horror. The Woman isn't just more genre filler. It is real art: political, beautiful, smart, savage and haunting. Horror fans who dismiss it in favor of a remake of The Thing or another direct-to-DVD zombie movie are assholes.

Deadwood's Sean Bridgers stars as Chris Cleek, a small practice lawyer and powerful figure in his rural Northeastern town. He's also a slimy, raging douchebag. While out hunting one day, Cleek spies a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh in a great, fearless performance) washing herself in the creek and decides he's going to bring her home to domesticate her. So, he does exactly that: catches her in a net, chains her up in the shed and explains to his wife and kids that they're all going to have to pitch in and "help" this woman.

I won't say more, because part of the fun of a horror movie like The Woman is not knowing where it's going (that's true of all the best horror movies). I'm using the word "fun" rather liberally, of course, because fun isn't something The Woman has on its mind. The movie gathered a lot of buzz when it played at Sundance earlier this year, where an angry audience member stood up and threw a tantrum when the movie was over. Having now seen the movie, I don't understand what the guy was so worked up about; yes, the movie goes to some very dark places and can be tough going at times (particularly the third act), but it's not as though McKee is reveling in violence and gore for their own sake. There are ideas behind the images that McKee puts on screen, and as long as you understand that, even the hardest moments become easier to stomach. The only way I can imagine getting offended is if you take what's being said (about men in particular) personally. In that case, I'm glad you're seeing The Woman and it's bothering you. You need to be told what the movie is telling you.

The Woman is very much in keeping with the rest of McKee's filmography, beginning with May (still one of my favorite horror movies of the last decade). His movies are very much about the roles of women in the horror genre and in society at large; he's one of the few feminist voices in a genre that's known and (correctly) criticized for misogyny and the subjugation of women. I'm no big fan of The Woods, McKee's sophomore movie, but it certainly still fits within this framework; ditto for his Masters of Horror episode, Sick Girl. In three of the four movies mentioned, he's worked with Angela Bettis (she is not in The Woods), and I love their professional relationship -- they are the Scorsese and DeNiro of a very specific kind of horror movie, always bringing out the best in one another. Her work as Cleek's wife Belle in The Woman is excellent, and though it could seem similar to what she does in May on the surface, it is entirely different. It's a tough role to play, and Bettis is smart to keep so much of it hidden from us. In some ways, we sympathize with her character because she appears to be trapped in an impossible situation. Then McKee gives us a real impossible situation, and we recognize that Belle plays a part in everything that transpires. Is she a victim? Yes, but it's not quite that simple.

I realize that I'm making The Woman out to sound nuanced and subtle. It is not. McKee isn't interested in that. This is a loud, bloody statement, and that's going to bother some audience members. I don't mind a brash movie as long as what's hitting me over the head is worth being said or if it's done well, and both are true here. Plenty of people will be turned off by the long stretches of silence, or the numerous montages of characters trapped in similar (but altogether different) circumstances, or the almost wall-to-wall power pop soundtrack. Not me. The Woman is made up of big choices, and I happen to like all of them; the movie casts a hypnotic spell, ratcheting up tension as it builds towards its crazy, inevitable climax.

The Woman is currently playing in very limited release, so I urge you to see it in theaters if it's at all possible. It's the kind of movie that most people will be able to catch up with on DVD and Blu-ray, and I suspect even that won't happen for several years, at which point champions of the film will wonder why they never gave it a chance back when it came out (see: The Descent). It's not for everyone -- no horror movie is -- but any self-respecting genre fan owes it to him or herself to at least give it a chance. It's one of my favorite movies of the year.


  1. I will definitely seek this out.

    Did you guys do a review out outcast on the descent (which you just referenced)? I don't see a link in this review. I know there is a difference between using a kid as a horror victim and allowing a child to die horrifically to further the plot, but the only difference between pet cemetery and the descent (with regards to the "no child rule") is that they didn't intentionally force us to become invested in the child that does, right?

    My bad if you guys previously addressed this.

  2. Excuse the typos (damn autocorrect):

    "out outcast" = "or podcast"

  3. I would agree with that distinction. The opening of the THE DESCENT is tough to watch, but it's more about establishing the character's emotional state. While I don't ever enjoy seeing a child hurt or killed in a movie (except those PROBLEM CHILD movies, because he was a PROBLEM CHILD [read: asshole]), I don't feel like there's anything exploitative about it in THE DESCENT. The same cannot be said of PET SEMATARY. What's worse, PET SEMATARY brings the same cute, dead kid BACK just to do it again. No fair. No fair.

  4. "Maybe all Junior needs is to be loved."

  5. Spot on--brilliant review. Thanks for spreading the word about this movie.

  6. Awesome. I'm so glad you dug it. Let's hope more horror fans are able to discover it.

  7. Just saw "The Woman" last night and really liked it and agree with you that McKee is about the only feminist voice in horror. I've liked/loved everything he's been involved in...except

    Have you seen "Red", the movie McKee was fired from. He's mostly disowned it and I don't know how much studio interference has ruined that film, and if it still is a McKee film in spirit despite of that.

    1. Thanks, Shannon. I really love that movie and wish more people would check it out.

      I haven't seen Red; it was up on Netflix Instant for a while (don't know if it still is), but, yeah, Lucky McKee doesn't have nice things to say about that experience. I did check out Roman, a movie he acted in that was directed by Angela Bettis. It's kind of a gender-reversed May. I didn't think very highly of it.

  8. First heard of this movie while listening to either a "Best of" or an "Underrated" podcast, and decided to Netflix it tonight.

    I really enjoyed the first half of the movie. Was very interested to see how this messed up experiment would turn out, and the family dynamics that went along with it. Second half got away from that and decided to turn the father and son into masochistic caricatures and topped it off with an I Spit on your Grave ending.

    I totally get if you liked the second half, but it wasn't my cup of tea. I think I've seen enough of that in horror movies.

    I really can't think of a way to justify the soundtrack though. Several scenes I found myself distracted by the music, and not in a "Hey, this is supposed to be ironic" type of way. Not only did the songs not fit the scenes, as a stand-alone tune they were still really bad.

    "The Woman" wasn't for me. However, I did watch "The Innkeepers" and liked it a lot. I love that style of ghost story.

    1. Hey, you gave it a real chance and had an honest reaction. That's all we can ask of anyone!

      I totally understand why some of the choices wouldn't work for you; it's that kind of movie. I'll take a movie that takes big swings but miss over a movie that plays it safe any day.

      Thanks for listening/commenting!

    2. I loved the choice to give it an 'Indie dramedy' soundtrack. I found it fasinating.

  9. Ha! If you're offended by a movie that says "rape is bad"... then you have problems.

    I'm the guy who often says horror movies don't scare me. But I just watched this and I'm almost physically shaking. Interesting that the protester calls the film "sick". It certainly is, but isn't that the point? It's a provocative horror film designed to horrify and it does exactly that. But I do understand it being too much for some, because it was almost too much for me. But I just can't praise it enough. Especially the performance from Sean Bridgers. One of the greatest psycho performances I've ever seen in my life and completely Oscar worthly. If the academy ever recognized anything edgy that is.