Suddenly the camera is jostled, the point of view shakes. Someone has actually bumped into the camera, and it's the titular Woman, a dirty and grizzled mess, clutching a wound in her side. Director Lucky McKee opens his film with a statement of intent, telling you that his film will attempt to shake you, to fuck up your peaceful moment, to play with your point of view. And The Woman does that again and again; it's a movie filled with POV shots and close-ups of faces, a movie where we're naturally on the side of a sicko and have to work to be on the side of an abused woman. This is confrontational cinema.
Thankfully it's also funny. Based on a novel by Jack Ketchum, The Woman begins from an almost ludicrous premise - a father and husband is out hunting when he comes across a feral woman in the wild, decides to capture her and bring her home and use his family to help tame and domesticate her. This is allegory muscling through to become text, and in lesser hands it would be eye-rollingly obvious and stupid. But McKee and Ketchum wear sly grins, and they bring a humor so black it could be mistaken for blood in the right lighting.
The father, played by Sean Bridgers with all the intonations of Will Ferrell as George W Bush, is avuncular and funny and not really a bad guy. On the surface he might be a little conservative, but he's no Jesus freak. He has a mousy wife (Angela Bettis, using her eyes like a silent film star) and a lovely daughter going through a tough time. And he has a son, a young teen, who is beginning to display the darkness that his father hides so well.
The film's greatest triumph is to get you to like this guy. He's personable. He's charming. He beats his wife when she dares question the sanity of keeping a woman chained in the root cellar. Bridger plays him so sane, so straight, that you almost forget he's a nut. You almost forget how crazy his plan is. Almost, because McKee keeps reminding us that his suburban domesticity barely covers a raging, furious misogyny.
There is no cover on the son, played with a convincing level of little shit-ness. The kid is a sociopath, his father's son. The temptation of a feral woman, bound and hidden, is too much for him, and he begins to play out his sick, violent fantasies on her unwilling body.
Pollyana McIntosh is The Woman, and her performance is stunning. She has no lines, per se, as The Woman speaks no language we recognize. She grunts and hisses, but most of all she acts with her huge, wild eyes. She's dangerous, and even though she's chained and being brutalized and raped she's not out of control. She's just momentarily unable to wreak her vengeance.
The shit hits the fan at the end, and family secrets are revealed and mother finally stands up for herself and her daughter. The Woman embodies a fierce, unforgiving brand of feminism, though, and being a collaborator is just as bad as being a brutalizer. The Woman has moments of uncomfortable violence throughout, but it goes grand guignol right at the end. The kills, which are over the top in the best splatter tradition, work as moments of righteous revenge as well as semi-splatstick.
The first fifteen minutes of The Woman are tough going. McKee's budgetary limitations are writ large here, and he makes some choices up front that threatened to lose me. One bit has a slomo shot of the Woman dissolving into a howling wolf - I couldn't tell if this was supposed to be ironically funny or if McKee was being really serious; the film itself is tonally tricky.
But that trickiness is what's great about the movie. McKee isn't going for easy obviousness. I think anyone with a working brain can understand what general points the movie is making, but McKee doesn't hold our hands, and if anything he keeps rocking the boat. He delights in giving us a bunch of characters who range from strange to despicable, and he's asking us to identify with them all (sadly the one character who is fairly straight ahead, the teacher played by Carlee Baker, is undermined by a shockingly awful, wooden performance). He's also asking us to take things very seriously while he winks at them, never settling on being a black comedy or a grim political work. For some viewers this might be disorienting; for me it was thrilling.
Even with what appears to be a rock-bottom budget, McKee is able to work subtle visual magic. Once I got past the first few minutes of video look and strange editing, I settled into the world he was creating, and found many of his shots to be delightfully brazen and literally in your (or the characters') face.
The Woman is the kind of thrilling filmmaking you only get from low budget endeavors; nothing is being vetted or okayed, there is never the feeling of a suit's hand on the director's shoulder. This movie, with a handful of electrifying performances and a wicked sense of humor, is a direct message from the twisted hearts of Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum.