1 November 2011

Clarky's Review: The Woman

When Al informed us on Thursday afternoon that his choice for the evening may be a controversial one, I feared the worst. After last years Inside, a film from the current extreme French wave which involved an incredible amount of gore, I couldn't imagine what sort of deviant choice he had lined up for us. Things didn't get any better when I saw the DVD cover:

Directed by Lucky McKee (who I thought was a woman giving what I knew about the film and its supposed feminist agenda) The Woman was only released on 30 September 2011 into cinemas and is a sequel to the 2009 film Offspring. Whilst, I haven't seen Offspring, I believe that The Woman follows on directly from the end of that film as The Woman in question, portrayed by Scottish born actress Pollyanna McIntosh, is severely wounded and the last surviving member of a feral clan of cannibals. I initially thought that she was going to provide the majority of the "horror", however it is something much more normal, and terrifying, that provides the scares here.

The film opens with a stunning opening shot of The Woman crawling into a tunnel. The lighting is impeccable as we can only see the whites of her eyes. Make no mistake about it, this woman is an animal. They say the eyes are the doorway to the soul, and this scene epitomises this more than any other that I can remember.

I thought at this point that she had killed a wolf in this tunnel. The following dreamlike sequence shows a wolf with a baby. I had assumed at the time that this was meant to symbolise something (way over my head) and completely forgot about it until I started to write this review. In hindsight, whilst there is an element of symbolism, I think that this may have a more literal meaning given the ending of the film (more of which later - do not read on if you wish to avoid the dreaded SPOILERS).

The film then cuts to a family BBQ and we see the main antagonist of the piece - Chris Cleek, the father of the family and the dominant figurehead. I initially thought that he was eyeing up a younger lady in front of his wife, yet this turns out to be his eldest daughter. This leads to a strange dynamic throughout the rest of the film, which hints at incest, yet never makes it absolutely clear.

Even in this initial scene, we get a sense of Chris Cleek's dominance over his wife. Although he never says anything that horrendous to her, he never makes eye contact with her, and talks to her as if she is a servant and a lower being than him. He also flicks the switch and becomes, relatively, charming when talking to a widower. Yet you get the underlying suspicion that whilst he pretends to care, he is going to take this woman for all she is worth and exploit her. 

We then cut to a scene where we watch a boy (Chris' son) watch a little girl being bullied. His face shows no compassion as he witnesses this act. The camera shows you the scene from his point of view making you implicit in his (non) actions and giving you a taste of what is to come.  Again, this scene has a sense of foreboding that is present throughout the film.

The acting is universally excellent throughout this film. The Woman herself could easily be a role which invites derision, yet Pollyanna McIntosh, unrecognisable under some fantastic make-up and prosthetics, brings a real heart to this character and skilfully evokes her mood and feelings, all without uttering a single word. The children are excellent too, with the youngest daughter showing herself to be incredibly naturalistic in front of the camera. The stand out however is Sean Bridgers as Chris Cleek. This is an incredible performance from Bridgers who is unrecognisable from his turn as Johnny the doofus in Deadwood. He exudes menace in every scene and is utterly terrifying. 

Due to many of his actions, and those of his son, throughout the film the film has been branded misogynistic by some critics. His wife is downtrodden and trapped in her marriage, and is subject to physical and mental abuse. The physical abuse is particularly shocking, as it comes from nowhere. Whilst the mental abuse underlies every comment and conversation - most of which involve him barking orders at her and getting her to wait on him hand and foot.

His eldest daughter clearly lives in fear of him, and may or may not have been raped by her father. Whilst she is clearly uncomfortable around him this could be simply due to the fact that she is pregnant. Her father is clearly overbearing, in the first scene at the BBQ he orders his wife to stop his youngest from playing with the boys and trying to hug and kiss them. She may just be fearful of him, or she may have been violated by him. It is never fully clear. (please note this is not a criticism!). It is noted at the beginning that she was seeing the boy at the party and she is very distant when talking to him. Is this due to the fact that he is the father. 

(It's interesting to note that the "boyfriend" is one of only two male characters outside the Cleek Clan. He is shown to be extremely petulant when Peg declines his advances. The other male character, if you can call him that, is the groundskeeper at the school who appears to be portrayed as a dirty old pervert. Its fair to say that the male characters in this film are given pretty short shrift and are not likeable in the slightest).

The teacher, who it is intimated is a lesbian, is a very rough and ignorant character, and her actions at times are unbelievable. Acting outside jurisdiction its tempting to say that in "horror terms" she gets what she deserves. This is meant to be a successful, independant young woman, and yet Lucky McKee kills off about the only strong female in the film.

The "strongest" female character is of course The Woman herself. She is a real threat to Chris and has to be bound and chained in order to be under Chris' control (much like the other woman in Chris' life who he controls through mental and physical abuse). Yet at the same time she is actually captured by Chris thereby suggesting that she is the weaker sex, and by being captured she is at his mercy. When she does have a chance to escape (during the rape scene) she decides not to. 

Earlier in the film we see Chris come towards her and she bites off his finger. Yet when he is close enough to have sex with her (after lighting a candle adding extra creepiness to the scene as he clearly has convinced himself that locking her up is for her own good and this is in some way romantic) she decides just to take it rather than fight back. Given she is a feral, cannibal why not bite through his jugular, rather than decide to relinquish all hope and accept this abuse forever. The only thing I can think off is that she is hoping to return to her baby, as witnessed in the opening scene, yet it is likely that the baby won't have survived this long (if it is even real).

The other minor female character is a PA to Chris Cleek who seems to be under his spell, and seems to be flirting with him. Again, this is not a very strong female character. Maybe this is Lucky McKee trying to reflect what he see's in society.

There is no doubt that these characters are treated in a misogynistic manner, however, the film itself appears to be phylogynist, as there are no redeeming male characters in the entire film. The entire male species are deemed to be bullying idiots, with no compassion for woman. In this sense, the film is quite two dimensional, although the characters themselves are not, and black and white. There are not many shades of grey here, and at times it feels quite simplistic.

Yet, without wanting to contradict myself, the more I thought about this film, the more misogynistic I thought some of the characters were. Firstly, it is conceivable that the mother could be considered the greatest villain of the piece. Not only does she have the chance to hit her husband over the head and free The Woman, but she also doesn't have to stay with her husband. 

This is clearly not a good environment for her children to be brought up in, and you could say has resulted in her son evolving into the man he does (on another note this also opens up the question of nature versus nurture - which also plays a role in the story of The Woman herself and the post end credits I think). Lucky McKee seems to agree that she is in fact a bad guy by having her killed at the end as retribution, along with the father and son thereby lumping her in the same category as them. 

The only two that survive are the eldest sister, and this may only because she is pregnant and therefore is carrying an innocent life, and the youngest daughter who is still innocent herself. However, the woman seems to decide to take the daughter, possibly to replace the child that she has lost from the beginning of the film.

It is after the denouement, and the credits, that we are "treated" to an animated sequence with the youngest daughter who seems to be in awe of a tree person. Is this The Woman, is it an metaphor for Mother Nature. Or does it refer to nature versus nurture again. The Woman is clearly a feral woman yet she appears to have higher moral standards than the Cleeks and is clearly in touch with her surroundings possessing a sixth sense at times - she knows that Peg is pregnant. Who knows what the post end credits was meant to signify, it felt so pretentious and out of place that I still don't know what to make of it.

This almost seems to tie in with the fact that the desire to be successful also appears to be frowned upon (Chris is a successful business man whilst his son has an almost robotic approach to practicing his basketball free shots, under his fathers tutelage of course). However, it is only the men that have this drive with the woman shown as secondary / lessor characters - the housewife, the assistant etc. With the exception of the schoolteacher, however, as noted earlier this is then contradicted by showing her to be naive and is killed off.

Maybe this is what Lucky McKee was aiming for, to have the viewer constantly questioning their beliefs and their interpretation, but to me it just comes across as if the film is muddled and doesn't know entirely what it wants to say. That, or the characters are just not up to scratch to stand up to further scrutiny.

The other issues that I had were in relation to some possible plot holes, some of which bothered me more than others. I'm sure Fin and Al are saying that I am nitpicking, but when a film like this asks you to review it and scrutinise it then everything should stack up.

Firstly, the "dog" at the end seemed a bit far fetched and seemed to be just a cheap jump scare in hindisght. If this is the second person that Chris has captured then the issues that the family had with capturing The Woman seem somewhat diluted and therefore lack the same impact (especially on repeat viewing). This quite simply wasn't required and seemed out of kilter with the rest of the film for the sake of a twist / boo scare.

Secondly, I noted at the time how they got The Woman upstairs to wash her, and have seen numerous other comments online regarding this. This didn't bother me too much to be honest, given Chris' nature I just assumed that he knocked her out and brought her upstairs when she was unconscious before tying her to the barrel.

Finally, why does Peg lie about finding her brother touching The Woman and himself. Surely the fact that he took pliers to her is the most worrying thing about that scene. There is no need to lie, and it just raised more queries in my mind.

Although, I seem to have been quite negative there is a lot to recommend here. The soundtrack is a trippy experience, where at times the music seems totally alien to what is being portrayed on screen, resulting in everything feeling out of kilter, in a good way. There are also times where no music is employed and the sound design does everything for you - the ringing after the shot is fired (which also serves to put you in the point of view of The Woman increasing your sympathy for her) or the constant barking of the dogs which shreds your nerves and is constantly unsettling.

The editing is also particularly good, specifically the scene where the son tortures The Woman with the pliers. You don't actually see the pliers contacting with her which, again, serves to put you in The Woman's shoes and also lets your imagination run wild. No matter what is on screen, the idea in your head of what he is doing to her with the pliers is always going to be more terrifying, and therefore have more impact.

In conclusion, the message is a bit mixed from Lucky McKee in my mind, and a bit heavy handed at times. There are also certain things that don't hold up well on further inspection, which a film like this demands from its viewer. However, there is no doubt that this an attention grabbing piece of cinema, and is unlike anything I have ever seen. It may not be perfectly executed, but it leaves you questioning a lot of issues and if nothing else demands credit for that. 


  1. Interesting review. If I hadn't seen the film then I'd be majorly put off by your take. Putting aside the fact that you are well known as Mr Nitpick, I really don't think there are as many issues with this film as you spent the majority of your review documenting. It has a solid story, good acting, great effects (especially sound), quirky soundtrack and lots of talking points. It doesn't rely on ultra violence or gimmick scares. For me, it's easily in the top 10 horrors since 2000. Where do you rank it on the all time list?

  2. PS… that last comment is not my review! I realise that you will be moaning plenty on Thursday about posting your review when you have so much on etc and we haven't. I'm prepared for it, and it is well deserved. I will endeavour to post it by tomorrow evening. You procrastinate on studying, I procrastinate on writing reviews… and studying too.

  3. I think it is worth watching, and say as much in my review, I just think that the directors vision is muddled to say the least. It certainly has a lot of talking points (as the length of my review proves) and it captivated me from start to finish. I just didn't enjoy it as much as you and Fin. I think it has some good points, but its not an outstanding film by any means.

    Maybe I am being a bit harsher on it as it seems to have a message to say that I felt is lost somewhat, and therefore I'm picking it apart a bit more.

  4. My review will be going up shortly. I absolutely loved it and it has gone straight in to number 7 on my list so as you can imagine do not agree with Clarky on this one


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