Lucky McKee’s The Woman, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, has generated a fair amount of both positive and negative press since its premier at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Co-written by McKee and horror novelist Jack Ketchum The Woman takes a minor character from Offspring (Andrew van den Houten, 2009) and puts her centre stage in a dark tale of misogyny, dysfunctional family life and bloody revenge. Deemed by the Daily Mail to be ‘undeniably powerful’ and by The Times to be ‘the nastiest film of the year’ McKee’s latest feature is certainly unsettling in parts and doesn’t stint on graphic violence but I’m unconvinced that its attempts at a satirical focus on patriarchal dominance is as convincing as certain critics and horror fans think it is.
Starring Pollyanna McIntosh as the titular character, the last surviving member of an illiterate, barbaric, woods dwelling tribe, and erstwhile Deadwood cast member Sean Bridgers as Chris Cleek, the domineering head of a family who stumbles across and then captures the woman whilst out hunting, The Woman pits masculine chauvinism against both subjugated and untamed femininity in a simple but warped tale of captivity, exploitation and the clash between supposedly civilized society and a primitive ‘other’. Chained up in the family’s fruit cellar to be tamed by Cleek, the woman is the subject of fascination, pity, revulsion and eventually empathy by the female members of the Cleek family ・abused mother Belle (Angela Bettis) and their daughters Peggy and Darlin’. Their troubled adolescent son Brian proves himself to be a real chip off the old block as events get even stranger, and more violent, than already described. Bridgers’ plays his character, the increasingly unhinged villain of the film, in a n incrementally sinister fashion – on the surface a proud all American family man and successful lawyer and underneath a sadistic, power crazed figure ・who stands as an inverted opposite to McIntosh’s woman ・nakedly aggressive, uncivilised and outside of ‘normal’ society but capable, as the denouement shows, of unforeseen sisterly actions, a sense of justice and pride.
The Woman follows a predictable path to its conclusion amidst unpleasant but hardly controversial scenes of rape, domestic violence, sadism and vengeful violence that after setting up its themes of male cruelty towards females, extreme alpha male behaviour and the clashing worlds of civilisation and the wilderness feels like a chance missed to portray a radical, uncomfortable satire on the ongoing battle between the sexes. It’s pertinent to remember that this is still very much a patriarchal view, the male gaze still dominates the proceedings, as seen in a sequence where the woman is stripped naked and paraded in front of both the family and the audience, the majority of which are likely to be hormonal teenage males. Is not the strikingly beautiful McIntosh, with breasts and pubic region fully exposed, not just as exploited by the film-makers as the character is by the family? The supposed satire falls apart with the cheap titillation of seeing the woman strung up Christ-like, butt naked for all to see. This is unsettling only in the manipulative way the film-makers seem to be denouncing the objectivity of the female body whilst lovingly shooting its central character’s naked body. Would they have been so keen to show someone deemed less aesthetically pleasing naked? This aspect, and the signposted narrative climax, fatally undermines The Woman, leaving it as nothing more than a run of the mill exploitation flick with delusions of grandeur.