'The Woman' Review: Bloody, Belated Swipe at American Patriarchy

Director Lucky McKee’s ‘The Woman’ would be an overt but timely critique of patriarchal societies had it hit theaters a few decades ago.

Seeing it today with its grim look at the male-dominated family unit is an bewildering experience. And that’s before we meet the feral young woman at the heart of this unorthodox shocker.

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McKee, whose underrated film ‘Red’ covered far more traditional turf, is throwing so much on the screen it’s hard to know what to assess first. But the narrative proves sluggish and cold, and even after processing his critiques, it’s hard not to want him just to get to the Grand Guignol finale already. However, when he does, even veteran horror fans will wince in shock.

Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) runs a reputable law office and has a beautiful wife (Angela Bettis of McKee’s ‘May’ fame) and three children. But all is not well with this Cleaver-esque clan. Daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) looks ashen as she sits in class each day, silently hoping the teachers won’t call on her. Son Brian (Zach Rand) is just downright creepy, a cruel lad who can sit idly by while a girl is tormented by his peers.

The family’s odd dynamic is rocked when their father finds and captures an uncommunicative young woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) roaming the woods. “We need to civilize her,” he tells them. And with one look at this poor soul, we’re forced to agree.

The titular woman is slathered with mud and grit, her teeth rotted and stained. She snarls and snaps at the family like a wild beast. By why on earth does Chris think it’s better to rehabilitate her himself in the family barn rather than direct her to law enforcement or any other body better equipped to treat her?

McKee, who wrote the script along with ‘Red’ collaborator Jack Ketchum, makes it clear ‘The Woman’ will take liberties with reality once the woman “joins” the family, for what possible reason would Bettis’s character agree to her husband’s mad scheme?

Chris’s family does register shock at the turn of events, but they do as they’re told. Later, when the mother dares to question her husband’s choices, she’s slapped so quickly, audiences might not even see the blow. That violence might help explain how Chris keeps his brood together, but McKee doesn’t sell the logic behind the family dynamics.

The film’s intriguing premise gives way to a good 45 minutes of filler. Chris attempts to feed the woman oatmeal, but she lunges out and sends the bowl shattering to the ground. “Next time we need to use Rubbermaid,” Chris cracks, one of a few nuggets of black humor shining through the bleakness.

The static storytelling does give audiences time to ponder the bigger picture. Is McKee commenting on American troops civilizing foreign lands via ground troops? Could the filmmakers truly be as pessimistic about the male psyche as the story suggests?

What’s missing here is any overt religious commentary, a good thing considering the social statements arrive with all the poetry of a falling guillotine blade.

McKee hoards the horror elements for the grand finale, a gonzo series of events which pack one major surprise. However, the action gets so frenetic and disquieting, it’s hard to process the final note in McKee’s symphony of gore.

‘The Woman,’ screened at the 2011 Mile High Horror Film Festival and opening in limited release Oct. 14, remains violently original and even bold, but its core message, already a few decades too late for real social relevance, feels like it’s been lost during delivery.

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