Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Director Report Card: Lucky McKee (2011)

5. The Woman (2011)
As a huge fan of Lucky McKee and someone who generally enjoys the work of Jack Ketchum, I was eagerly anticipating their latest partnership. It’s a true collaboration too. McKee’s screenplay for “The Woman” and Ketchum’s novel were written at the same time and the two manuscripts influenced one another. Despite having not read the books “Off Season” and “Offspring,” nor seen the latter novel’s film adaptation, I considered myself familiar enough with both director and author to know what to expect.

But I sure didn’t expect this. “The Woman” is the most brutally horrifying film I’ve seen this year and maybe in years. It’s not an exploitation movie, but rather a movie about exploitation. McKee combines his feminist angle with Ketchum’s trademark brutality. Ketchum often writes about violent sociopaths barely concealing their psychopathy under a smile of civility. That concept is presented in a story about a dysfunctional family barely held together by fear and a tyrannical patriarch. McKee then injects the whole thing with his themes of how twisted masculinity has subjected, objectified, controlled, and abused women throughout the decades. The movie would almost play like a perverse satire if the horror wasn’t presented in uncompromising, sickeningly tense detail. The movie isn’t subtle, but sometimes subtly isn’t necessary.

McKee continues to suppress and refine his style as a director. As far as stylistic excesses go, the movie peaks in the opening minutes, in which it shows the ferocity of the titular Woman visually. Lucky refrains from the colorful flourishes of “May” and “The Woods,” instead recording most of the movie with a blunt, matter-of-factness. After that brief prologue, the movie settles in on its family.

Father Chris smiles and nods, seeming much too content and happy with his life, as if he’s working overtime to exude a sense of normality. He has a passive-aggressive, vaguely predatory tone with everyone in his life, from his neighbors to his secretary to, especially, his family. Wife Belle is obviously tightly-wound, a nervous wreck barely holding her self together. Teenage daughter Peggy is depressed, failing in school, dressing frumpily, and avoiding her social life. Son Brian shows affection for a girl in his class by sticking gum in her hairbrush. Even the otherwise normal youngest daughter Darlin seems blindly happy.

Obviously there is something very wrong with this family even before the father sees the untamed Woman in the woods. He is smitten with her immediately. (The movie illustrates this by playing a rock song over the first sighting, an admittedly heavy-handed moment. The movie generally leans on its soundtrack a bit too much.) By her nonchalant sexuality? Or by the opportunity to build his own girl from the ground-up, without any of society’s built-in attitudes? Dad captures the Woman, takes her back to his home, ties her up in his tool shed, and goes about his plan of “civilizing” the cannibalistic female. He involves his wife and children in this endeavor right from the beginning, having the kids treat this human being little better then a pet.

The Woman soon goes on to acerbate the all ready tense family situation. Her wildness seems to inject a dose of chaotic imbalance to the sterile family life. It’s not her anarchic, untamed femininity but her ability to read people with a glance, to know what they’re feeling and thinking. And why she rarely comes out and says it, just her unblinking glares are enough to pass judgment, to plant the seed of rebellion or guilt. Belle has an opportunity to stop the madness and Peggy’s kind, snooping teacher provides her with an out as well. But neither go for it, so tight is Daddy’s lease, even with the Woman casting confrontational stares from the tool shed.

The movie lays down its cards slowly, building upon the abuse inch-by-inch. Emotional blackmailing and strangulating oppression soon gives way to slaps and then much worse. In keeping with the Jack Ketchum brand, the real monster aren’t the cannibal cave people in the woods, but the smiling Stepford people in the suburbs, using their psychological powers to inflict much worse damage on their victims then a bloody wound. As the story builds, the intensity builds. A fever pitch is reached in the last fifteen minutes, when emotions come out, bounds are broken, and we realized just how much of a monster Chris Cleek really is. The climatic twist is shocking, disturbing, and completely unexpected. In another movie, it might pushes thing too far over the top, but by this point, the viewer is sucked in, dragged along uncontrollably by the movie’s unblinking eye. And then The Woman, locked away like so much boiling rage and fear and suppressed hate, is let loose. Like a lawnmower blade wielding hurricane, she expresses all those hindered emotions physically, viscerally, in a way the suppressed women of the family can not. The final act of the film is horrifying and captivating. You can not look away, no matter how much you’ll want too. And you’ll want too.

The cast is indeed impressive. Pollyanna McIntosh in the title role takes a penetrating glower and runs with it, doing a lot with a little. It’s not hard to imagine why the filmmakers would decide to build an entire movie around her or why the characters would be so obsessed with her. Sean Bridgers embodies the grinning madman of Chris Cleek a little too well. I can’t imagine being in a room with this guy, acting like this. You understand how evil he can be but also why he can be so completely in control of those around him. Angela Bettis puts her slender, fragile form and shaky delivery to good use as the constrained wife. She’s utterly kowtowed and completely reigned in, constantly afraid that anything will set off the monster(s?) in her home. (Until she finally snaps, which is cathartic, but goes about as well as you’d expect.)

If McIntosh isn’t the break-out star of the picture, it’s definitely Lauren Ashley Carter. With her big doe-eyes, cutie-pie lips, and general pixie cuteness, Carter certainly makes you want to protect her. She runs through the cycle of guilt and horror the character requires fantastically. Hopefully, she has a long, successful career before her.

Sadly, not every performance in the film is great. Zack Rand as the son is a little too flat. Perhaps intentionally. But his character is definitely the least defined of the family and, when the script calls on him to do big things later on, it’s the only time the movie feels engineered.

My reaction to “The Woman” was obviously very visceral. I was left disquieted and unnerved by the film. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one to have a strong reaction. But the movie isn’t a misogynistic shock machine like that one viewer believes. It’s a thoughtful treaty on gender relation, abuse, and control. When it’s shocks, it’s for a reason. In a Lucky McKee movie, an eye-gouge is never just an eye-gouge. Horror has always been the genre that sneaks social commentary in under pulp trappings. “The Woman” is a proud continuation of that tradition. It’s Lucky McKee’s best film since his debut, his most effective as a horror film, and an incredibly bold statement in an all-too-often routine genre. [Grade: A]

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