2 November 2011

Fin's Review: The Woman

Last Thursday, Horror Club guest Ryan from Those Movie Guys chose Night Of The Living Dead as his inaugural choice. In my review for that undoubted classic, I bemoaned the lack of ambition and purpose exhibited in most modern horror and dreamed of a film of the stature and game-changing quality of Romero's 1968 opus being released today. It was therefore a big week for Ally coming on the back of Night Of The Living Dead and it was particularly interesting that Ally chose the recently released 'The Woman' as his choice. Only a week after my Night Of The Living Dead review, would I get the chance to further enforce my negative take on the majority of modern horror, or would The Woman, like Let The Right One In and House Of the Devil, be that rare modern horror of real craft and quality which can take its place alongside the greats of the 70s and 80s?

Well, my only disappointment after watching this film was that it had not received more hype. I was absolutely blown away by it. When you become so inured to the usual bland Hollywood fare on offer at the multiplex, you forget that film can still be a powerful and unique artistic form. It is funny that it takes a film as fresh and cutting-edge as The Woman to remind you that there is life in the old art form yet. Director Lucky McKee crafts a ferocious, angry and challenging film, but also one which manages to marry this with enjoyment. Particularly rare among modern horror, and with parallels to last week's film, Lucky McKee actually has something to say in this film.

The Woman is fundamentally a twisted family drama in which we see the final acts of a family imploding. The story introduces use to family man and popular small town lawyer Christopher Cleek. Christopher is a throw-back to the 50s idea of fatherhood, appearing to love his family but running his house with a military precision and discipline. His family, particularly the women in it, have been trained well to respect his authority. While out hunting Christopher discovers a wild, feral woman subsisting in the woods near his country home. Chris views this woman as a project and perhaps a bizarre way to unite his family. With the aid of his oppressed and cowed family, he takes it upon himself to 'civilise' this woman.

From the opening credits I found this film remarkable. The story, the way the film is shot, the quality of the acting and the unique soundtrack work together to create a bizarre, unsettling, hypnotic experience. There are not many horror films that I would be happy to watch more than once but The Woman is one that I would  return to more than happily, if only to pick up on everything that is happening on screen. From the beginning of the film, the director manages to create a real atmosphere of dread in scenes where nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

In the opening scene, with the Cleek family attending a barbecue, Lucky McKee squeezes tension from nothing - a real skill for a horror director. McKee is absolutely fantastic at using silences to create suspense and to hint at horrors unsaid. The New York Times compared Mckee's use of silence in this film to the work of David Cronenberg and Roman Polanski - high praise indeed. Throughout the film McKee shows genuinely fresh vision in how he shoots, perhaps most notably in his use of cut shots. The scene in which The Woman is washed down with a power shower is both excruciating to watch and emotionally powerful due to the masterful use of cuts shots. Throughout the film McKee uses interesting angles and techniques in places that would not even occur to lesser directors.

Some reviewers have criticised The Woman for its use of violence, and while it would be silly to say that this film is not violent, this violence is never gratuitous. I'm very critical of films that use violence simply because they have no fresh ideas or indeed any story to work with (Eli Roth, anyone?). However McKee's use of violence is well judged and a vital part of the story and in fact much of the actual violence is off screen or just glimpsed through masterful cut shots. A prime example of this is when Chris's horrific progeny Brian, who he has trained and shaped in his own image, decides to torment the feral woman. We do not actually see any of the violence but the horror is magnified both by the cut shots and by the sound. The sound in The Woman also deserves great praise. It is employed magnificently to further emphasise the horror on screen. 

The story itself is excellent. It is lean, simple and powerful. From the start McKee allows the story to develop in a well-paced, quiet and natural fashion. From the initial unease felt by the viewer at the family barbecue McKee begins to feed the viewer just enough information to increasingly build a picture of the true extent of the horror this family represents. However he does this in a way in which we are kept guessing - we get a sense of something terrible going on outwith the action on screen, but often we are not sure what it is, increasing the dread.
As a result, when certain aspects of the family that we have just guessed at before are fully revealed they are genuinely shocking. As with any horror film worthy of its place in the genre, there are shocks and violence but cleverly McKee does not dwell on these in graphic detail. Indeed these shocking acts are carried out in an everyday, almost mundane fashion, indicating the real depravity at the heart of this family. Much of the real terror of this film is derived from the effect Chris Cleek has on his family. Rather than being shown actual acts being carried out by Chris, we witness the effect his physical presence has on his terrified wife and daughter and his increasingly sinister son.

As with any film, the success of any story relies heavily on the quality of the acting. Thankfully the acting in The Woman is universally excellent. The two fundamental roles in this film are Chris Cleek and the eponymous woman, both of which are performed brilliantly. Sean Bridges' performance as Chris is absolutely stunning and I'm confident that if this was not a horror film he would be receiving wider praise. He plays Chris in a bizarre mix of charm and threat, madness and cool, detached confidence in his own goodness. Pollyana Macintosh is equally good in her role as the wild, feral woman. In a role with almost no speech, she still manages to command the screen with a ferocious, brave and in a strange way moving performance. The rest of the cast ably support the two main players, realistically portraying the effects this man has had on his family.

A final mention must go to the soundtrack. The soundtrack written by Sean Spillane is a notable feature of this film - it seems strangely out of place, hinting at more everyday dramas. Spillane's soundtrack, while better quality, is weirdly reminiscent of the american alt-rock that plays constantly over US teen dramas like the OC. This strange juxtaposition adds a further unsettling element to this masterful film.

At the start of this review I mention Night Of the Living Dead, a true game changer. While I'm not arguing that The Woman is as groundbreaking as Romero's work - I doubt any modern film could be - I do think this film will go on to be recognised as an important film of this era in horror. The Woman is a challenging film, both in how it approaches the conventions of horror and how it challenges issues within society.

In terms of horror conventions, it completely twist expectations. Most horror is built upon the assumption that the horror comes from without and is a threat to the safe, familiar or societal norms of the time. In other words, the unknown threatens the known. In The Woman the exact opposite happens. The unknown, the wild and the apparently threatening is simply a means to highlight the horror of everyday life. The unknown is not something to be feared in this film - the terror comes from the threat of corrupted power and the horror of the everyday.The Woman can even be argued to challenge the very notion of civilization itself.

People more intelligent than I have discussed the societal implications of this film, but a review of The Woman would not be complete without mentioning this side to it. The Woman  is undoubtedly a feminist horror film. At a simple level, the woman suffers a range of abuse at the hands of men, both physically and sexually, but also emotionally. However to say that this film is anti-men is too simplistic and indeed is the same critique people have always labelled at anything feminist. Instead, this film does what all great horror does - it holds a mirror up to society and by the use of horror techniques and exaggeration, the flaws of our own reality are all the more clear.

When this film was shown at the Sundance Film Festival a number of reviewers walked out, claiming it was too horrific. I believe that these claims are disingenuous. People struggle with this film not because the violence and emotional abuse are not too horrific, but becayse they are too familiar. What this film does, through the lens of horror, is highlight the myriad ways in which women suffer in a patriarchal system where power and control are the fundamentals of our society.

The Woman is a must see and has, in the space of 101 minutes, become one of my favourite horror films.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure you do agree with me, apart from your ranking. A lot of our points are exactly the same.

    The only point we seem to disagree on is the film being anti men. Surely you can't argue that there are any redeeming male characters in the film? It is at times quite simplistic I felt, but at the same time (as per my review) there are plenty of questions to be asked and upon further scrutiny my views sometimes appear contradictory.

    As noted, maybe this is exactly what Lucky McKee was striving for, but I'm not wholly convinced.

    There is no doubt that this is a fresh and exciting film though, even if in my mind it doesn't necessarily hold up quite as well when you really think about it.


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