Sundance 2011 Review: THE WOMAN

Kate Erbland

by: Kate Erbland
January 25th, 2011

Rating: 4/5

Writer: Lucky McKee
Director: Lucky McKee
Cast: Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Pollyanna McIntosh, Lauren Ashley Carter

A feral woman runs through a forest, so filthy and wild that it’s hard to tell if the blood coating her is from her own wounds or some unlucky prey. Lucky McKee’s THE WOMAN instantly introduces us the titular character, a nameless wolf-woman who, in the easiest of parlance, is a force of nature. And while the Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) is marauding through an unknown forest, the Cleek family is living out a deceptively familiar suburban existence just a breath away. But there’s something not quite right with the Cleek family – and there’s most definitely something dead just behind patriarch Chris Cleek’s eyes.

In short order, Chris (Sean Bridgers) discovers the Woman on a solo hunting trip, captures her, and brings her home to his basement so that he can “civilize her.” And then he introduces her to his family. The Cleeks, of course, all have different reactions to this idea, but Chris has so sufficiently controlled his family that the idea of snitching is not even a remote possibility to any of them. At the heart of this is the fact that Chris Cleek is the most outrageous and egregious misogynist put to film in recent memory. When he first encounters the Woman, there is a level of lust that infuses his hunt of her that is presented in trademark McKee fashion, one that gently masks the severity of what we’re being told with temporarily flashy style.

Those familiar with McKee’s previous works will see the director’s fingerprints all over THE WOMAN, but in a tighter and more refined manner and style than we have previously seen from the writer/director. McKee is not afraid to “go there,” and go there quickly and fully. And then go there again and again, all overlaid with a sound design that is grating in best possible way – loud and punishing and essential. And, much like MAY, McKee is keenly observant of the internal lives of women, and his presentation of them is a great boon to modern horror cinema. While Bridgers is phenomenal as Chris Cleek – an instant classic villain – it is the Cleek women, and of course the Woman herself, that hold the film both up and together.

THE WOMAN is well-crafted in a way that is not necessarily noticeable until its last third, when McKee pulls together threads we didn’t even know needed to be pulled together, giving us some genuine shocks and scares that don’t need knives or guns to make a statement. There’s tremendous payoff to sticking with THE WOMAN, twists and reveals that keep its final section almost impossible to turn away from.

Of course, THE WOMAN is not a film that is suited for everyone, and it’s already gained a level of notoriety with its Sundance premiere, thanks to walkouts that turned to runouts, leading to knockouts, followed by a tense Q&A involving a viewer who demanded the film be burned. While buzz like that is hard to match, it truly doesn’t explain the film in the slightest. Is THE WOMAN intense and violent and brutal? Surely, but it’s all in service of the story – this isn’t torture porn, and it’s not gratuitous. And, as is McKee’s way, after awhile the violence turns wonderfully, gleefully funny. The last fifteen or so minutes of THE WOMAN are not for the faint of heart, but only because they are both provocatively violent and blackly hilarious. Physical reactions seem inevitable, gut-busting laughter and jaw-dropping screams. If you make it through THE WOMAN, it’s hard not to feel as if you too haven’t just been caged and released.

Films like THE WOMAN will stir up controversy and misunderstanding by viewers who are unable to differentiate between what McKee is presenting on screen and how he feels about it. THE WOMAN is not meant to glorify violence, particularly violence towards women. It’s a deeply feminist film, with a heroine who is the only salvation within its blood red sea of misdirected anger and belief. It is certainly not a film for everyone, but it’s a perfect match for gutsy midnight movie programming that looks for both brains and blood.

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