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The Woman (USA, 2011)

03/11/2011

Director: Lucky McKee        Starring: Carly Baker, Shana Barry, Angela Bettis, Sean Bridgers, Pollyanna McIntosh

I have a theory that there are two fundamental ways you can make a film scary. It doesn’t really matter what else you do over the duration of your movie, as long as it sticks to one or other of these notions you should be able to make a film that is chilling or disturbing . Option one is to ensure that the horror that unfolds is ambiguous and unseen, to suggest that the phenomena blighting the characters is as likely in their heads as occuring in reality. The second option is to create a sequence of events that are sufficiently plausible and pedestrian that you feel they could not only happen but are more commonplace than you think. Either one works because they don’t rely on convincing special effects to scare you but rather give you the sense that what you are seeing unfold on the screen could happen to you or at least someone you know.

With The Woman, McKee seems to have plumped for option two and has done so to great effect. Chris Cleek (Bridgers, looking like Will Ferrel’s evil cousin) is the controlling patriarch of a typical middle class suburban American family. When out hunting in the woods he comes across a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh). Chris captures the woman and imprisons her in the cellar where, with the help of his family, he decides to “civilise” the woman. As his pet project unfolds however, Chris reveals an increasingly sinister side to his family life which will lead them all to an unpleasant conclusion.

At first glance, the focus of the film appears to be on the savage, raised by wolves in the woods woman and with less imagination this could easily have been turned into a woodland based slasher flick where the woman picked off unsuspecting teens one by one. McKee has however opted for a different approach. The real horror here is the behind-closed-doors behaviour of the seemingly upstanding Chris Cleek. In an approach reminiscent of Lynch’s Blue Velvet, the woman acts as a trigger for a series of events that unveils the rotten core of “normal” society. Her animalistic savagery seems normal and acceptable when compared to the sinister sadism expressed by Chris. From the moment we first meet the Cleek family it is readily apparent that there is something wrong with them and the more time we spend with them, the more we realise just how wrong that something is.

At least ninety percent of the air of menace (and it’s a heavy, opressive air of menace) that hangs over The Woman is down to the extraordinary performances. McIntosh puts up with a lot in the title role, spending much of the running time shackled in a shed or running about barefoot in the woods and proves to be convincingly feral (much of her performance is reminiscent of Milla Jovovich in the Fifth Element, something her physical resemblance to Jovovich accentuates). The actors portraying the Cleek family are just as good. Sean Bridgers is simply chilling as husband/father/abuser/sadist Chris and Zach Rand puts in an intense turn as his young son who is clearly following in his father’s footsteps. Lauren Ashley Carter puts in a suitably overwrought as the Cleek’s teenage daughter with a secret Peggy but the best actor accolade in this film should rest deservedly on the head of Angela Bettis who plays Chris’s wife Belle with an amazing physical nervousness that tells you everything you need to know about the Cleek family without ever explicitly talking about it. The tension between them all is magnificent and lies at the heart of the horror.

All of this is backed up with thoughtful production that compliments the action perfectly. The sound design is worth a particular mention, accentuating the sense that the woman has no concept of language and experiences the world through sounds rather than words. A guitar pop soundtrack provides a distressingly cheery juxtaposition to the darkness of the story. Much of the nastiness is suggested rather than seen but when the gore hits it’s mighty impressive, with (as far as I can tell) not a single pixel of CGI nonsense in sight. These mechanical effects are among some of the most effective and convincing I’ve seen and really are an absolute delight (if you like that sort of thing).

As far as horror films go, The Woman succeeds in capturing the essence of the things that are wrong with the human race. It portrays that peculiarly human evil that simmers just beneath the surface of normal life and it’s this almost pedestrian nature to the proceedings that makes it genuinely horrific. McKee never relies on bog standard, ghost train shocks to raise a scare, preferring instead to present the darker side of humankind as a day to day occurrence disguised by a veneer of respectability. It’s a refreshing antidote to the screeds of bog standard, assembly line slasher and torture porn horror films churned out by the Hollywood machine on a day to day basis and really, really needs to be seen by as many people as possible.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 04/11/2011 00:15

    Damn you, Andygeddon! Why do you do this to me? I don’t have time watch another of your recommends! My Netflix queue is already over 250 titles long.

    Oh, all right. I’ll add it to the list. *sigh*

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