Lucky McKee’s The Woman had a positive showing at this year’s FrightFest, scooping a best actress award for Pollyanna McIntosh (for her snarling portrayal of the titular, nameless Woman), and winning the prize of the third best overall film, behind such illustrious company as Kill List and Ti West’s The Innkeepers.
Yet there are two types of people who will end up seeing the film: those familiar with the backstory of novelist Jack Ketchum’s Dead River series (to which the film belongs), and those that aren’t.
Those with knowledge of The Woman’s backstory will find their experience of the film significantly altered. Yet this knowledge is not a requisite, and as such the film will be judged here as a standalone story. The backstory is there if you wish to seek it out.
Deadwood’s Sean Bridgers play Chris Cleek, a small-town lawyer who – ostensibly, at least – leads a wholesome existence on his ranch with his wife and three children. While hunting he spots a lone figure through the scope of his rifle: the Woman, filthy, primal and injured, bathing in a woodland river. In the film’s opening montage (somewhat clumsily imbued with over-enthusiastic wolf metaphors), we see the Woman running, seemingly for her life. From whom or what we don’t know, yet it is clear she is alone.
The voyeuristic intent the film employs here is entirely intentional in its uncomfortable gratuity. Chris is planning a family project, and the unsuspecting Woman is this project. In the first of what initially seems like a series of incomprehensible leaps of logic, Chris knocks her unconscious with the butt of his rifle and drags her back to his cellar, where she is manacled and surreptitiously contained.
Chris tells his family that it is their responsibility to introduce the Woman to civilisation, and (again, in what at the time seems like a thumpingly stupid development) his family relent, and agree to keep the secret. They don’t call the police. Or a shrink. Or even, after the Woman has used her teeth to deprive Chris of his ring finger, an ambulance.
The first two thirds of the film is spent wondering why every character, besides the Woman, is such an insufferable dolt. Each decision made seems ridiculous to the point of parody, a sense not at all assisted by McKee’s bizarre choice of music. During the aforementioned river sequence, the boobs-and-all slow motion is accompanied by horrendous rock, taking what could have been a tense, uncomfortable scene, and rubbing its nose in a pile of its own priapic sleaziness.
This penchant for an unwelcome injection of American rock is one that permeates the entire film, acting as the proverbial leaf blower to any atmosphere which threatens to swirl and settle around the increasingly disturbing events. It’s easy to see what McKee was trying to do, as an incongruous juxtaposition of music can imbue scenes with palpable menace (Reservoir Dogs’ use of Stuck In The Middle With You being an indubitable example), yet, at best, its use here can be classed as a clunking misfire. At worst, it threatens to derail the whole film – its distracting protuberance cannot be overstated.
And yet, The Woman is a film with a few more arrows in its quiver than might at first be apparent. Mckee and Ketchum plant seeds and leave clues that grow as the film progresses, eventually culminating in a final third that succeeds in atoning for – and better still, explaining – the bumpy road that leads somewhat circuitously to the final act.
Sean Bridgers plays Cleek with polite perfection, and is as multifaceted as some cynical, miserable Brits may occasionally suspect a stereotypical “have a nice day” American to be. Smiling on the outside, his eyes glower, and as the narrative runs its course, the layers of the family unit he has so carefully constructed are peeled away. It leaves behind something that sits uncomfortably between a reasoning behind, and a compulsion for, their mutual madness.
While The Woman can have little argument against its inclusion in the exploitation genre, it is the Cleek family that is being dissected here. Angela Bettis as Chris’ wife Bella is resigned yet silently defiant, his son Brian (Zach Rand) cooly seeks paternal approval, and his daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is petrified of the ramifications of a secret of her own. Pollyanna McIntosh’s performance as the Woman is, of course, the loudest, yet it is by no means the only one of note.
Yet the trappings of exploitation cinema do inevitably rear their head, and it is debatable whether they do so to the film’s credit or detriment. The violence in the film is binary, in that it is either shockingly, minimalistically jarring or gory to the degree of silly squared, and you may be able to guess which one succeeds.
Violence is not a constant in the film, yet it is the explosions of relatively minor brutality that shock, while the infrequent interruptions of splatter tend to childishly amuse rather than cerebrally affect.
McKee came very close to making a great film with The Woman. At its heart is a dark comparison of the atavistic, brutal nature of a supposedly civilised man and a feral woman, which arguably slips a little too far into a sexist’s sketch of feministic empowerment, such is its sometimes clodding misogyny. Yet it does not aim to cause offence, and it’s almost as though it threw in some daft blood and rubbish music to prevent itself from being taken too seriously.
Which is a shame, because lurking beneath the surface of The Woman is a potentially great film, let down by a somewhat meandering first hour, utterly abysmal music, and forays into nastiness and gore that, ironically, come across as slightly gutless.
Yet the satisfying evolution the story undergoes, plus a final act that brings enough to the fore to make the wait for it worthwhile, make The Woman a flawed yet tentatively recommendable film.