Review: ‘The Woman’

"One of the best horror movies in many, many years, and easily one of the best films of 2011."

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The Woman scared the living s**t out of me. This is no small feat. Usually horror movies manage to bore me or amuse me, and occasionally, at their best, elicit pangs of suspenseful sympathy for the characters and their plight. But The Woman made me want to crawl into a little ball and whimper high-pitched noises to myself. It’s a movie that tells you that nothing is okay, and maybe it never will be. It’s one of the best horror movies in many, many years, and easily one of the best films of 2011.

I’m almost at a loss to even describe The Woman. The plot is relatively simple: a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) is kidnapped by Chris Cleek, a family man played by Sean Bridgers, and held captive in his storm shelter under the pretext of teaching her to be “civilized.” But that sounds exploitative and silly without the benefit of context. The world that director Lucky McKee creates in The Woman defines “misogynistic.” The men of the Cleek family are demeaning and hateful but they hide behind social conventions of likability. Chris seems to actually care about his teenaged daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) but his lingering stares betray different intentions, and Chris’s son Brian (Zach Rand) watches in almost masturbatory intensity while a neighbor girl suffers brutality at the hands of local bullies.

This, really, is what the movie is about: the often subtle abuses perpetrated against womankind by men seething with quiet rage. It manifests consistently as emotional subjugation and, sometimes, spurts of violence so brief and unexpected that the victim doesn’t think to defend themselves or acknowledge that it’s even part of a horrifying pattern. Chris’s wife Belle (Angela Bettis, as brilliant as ever) is a quiet soul so thoroughly pummeled by her husband’s bemused viciousness that her only coping mechanism is to pretend that nothing is wrong. Lucky McKee’s film follows suit for a long time. Like the victims of abuse it portrays, The Woman can’t seem to accept its own horrifying circumstances until the plight of The Woman herself becomes so wildly unacceptable that the only option is to look directly into the abyss. It’s almost a relief when The Woman finally confronts the true terrors at work here, but by that point McKee has ratcheted the tension to such unbelievable levels that there’s no catharsis. The nightmares that follow are at once shocking and inevitable, and in no way “fun.”

The Woman was not made for your entertainment, and yet I could not take my eyes off of it. It turns the screen into a portal that opens straight into hell, and the most shocking thing is that hell looks a lot like you, your friends and your neighbors. It forces you to question what goes on in the minds and private lives of everyone you meet and wonder what unspeakable impulses can be found in their heads and homes. The characters are at once monstrous and pitiable, and the punishments that are inflicted upon some of them often seem unfair. You expect The Woman to eventually break free of her bonds and exact righteous, inspiring revenge on Mr. Cleek, but that would be too easy. The ending is indeed a brutal display of violent savagery, and yet I’d be seriously surprised if you walk away from the film with a any sense of relief.

In a better world The Woman would be a sure thing for the upcoming awards season. Hardly any movies this year can touch its raw emotional power and intelligent purpose (and if it came out last year there would be none whatsoever). Bridgers in particular belongs right alongside Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather as one of the most disturbingly plausible horror performances I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness, and the rest of the cast follows suit in spot-on portrayals. And yet despite its obvious quality, it’s entirely possible that you’ll wind up hating the filmmakers for forcing you to endure their disturbing vision. At least you’ll hate them for all the right reasons. The Woman is horror in its purest, most powerful form.