Monday, October 31, 2011

Women and Men

Lucky McKee's new film, The Woman (2011) finds the director in fine form after years of marginal projects and aborted films. It re-unites the director with writer Jack Ketchum after a troubled stint directing an adaptation of Ketchum's Red (which he wasn't allowed to complete) and after McKee produced another adaptation of Ketchum's The Offspring. That last project provides a jumping off point for this film, which is a sequel of sorts. I haven't seen The Offspring, so I can't comment on it, but I've read both the book on which it's based and Off Season, the book that precedes it. So this is a sequel to movie that's a sequel to a book that hasn't been filmed. Fortunately, none of that really matters. All that you need to know going into this film is that the title character is a feral woman from a family of cannibals. At the beginning of the movie, she's shown tending to a stab wound suffered in the previous film, but that doesn't really figure into things, so it's best to ignore it.

For all that back-story, the movie itself is direct and linear, much like Ketchum's prose. The story follows the title woman, the last member of a tribe of Sawney Bean-style cannibals, who is discovered one day by lawyer Chris Cleek, who is out hunting. Cleek decides that it might be fun to try to tame and civilize this feral woman, and he captures her and locks her in a root cellar. Cleek has a family he rules with an iron fist. He's the head of his household and he doesn't let anyone in his family forget it, especially any of the mere women. His wife, Belle, is totally cowed and doesn't even blink about the wild woman in their cellar. His oldest daughter, Peggy, is wrapped up in her own dilemma: she's pregnant and hiding it, though not very well. Cleek's son, Walter, is a burgeoning young sociopath who takes after his father in more ways than one. The youngest Cleek, Darlin', isn't old enough to register as being a person or as gendered yet. Everyone in the household defers to Chris without any overt rebellion. Chris Cleek enforces his patriarchal authority with horrifying methods that I had best leave un-described. The woman in his basment represents a challenge to his authority. If he can conquer her, he will have asserted his absolute superiority over the women around him. He doesn't even flinch after the woman bites his fingers off. Meanwhile, Peggy's teacher begins to suspect that something is awry with the Cleeks. It's obvious to her that Peggy is pregnant, and she takes it on herself to take that information to Peggy's family. This has dire consequences for the delicate balance of power in the Cleek's household, and the end of the movie explodes in a frenzy of violence.

This is a rough movie to sit through. McKee and Ketchum put their fingers on frayed nerves of the nuclear family and expose its latent hatred of women. It's hard to make a movie about misogyny without skirting up to the border of actually being misogynist, but this film manages it in the end, I think, though not without problematic elements of its own. One wishes that Chris Cleek wasn't such an obvious monster, but this is the road the film has taken, perhaps as a means to deflect accusations of misandry, that standard reposte of anti-feminists everywhere. Sean Bridgers plays Cleek as a kind of Southern good ol' boy, with the slimy, ingratiating manner of a used car salesman. This facade never cracks, even when he's torturing the woman in his basement, or, indeed, indulging in a little "home correction" among "his' womenfolk. He's a right monster--perhaps too much of one--but this isn't a naturalistic movie, so what the hell.

Opposite Bridgers is McKee's cinematic alter-ego, Angela Bettis, as Belle Cleek, who is twitchy and fragile and ultimately complicit in her own and her family's oppression. Lauren Ashley Carter plays Peggy, and she is resisting her family as best she can, though her resistance mainly consists of her silence in the face of her father's crimes against her and against the woman in the cellar. Eventually, her resistance comes into the open. Pollyanna MacIntosh plays the title role and it's hard for her to make much of an impression at the outset, given that she spends the first two acts of the film chained in a cellar, but there's always a smouldering hatred behind her eyes that explodes at the end of the movie. I'm a little bit uncomfortable with the way she's presented as a kind of avenging angel, because the film runs the risk of making her a fantasy figure, but the way the end of the movie plays out finds her actions beyond letting blood putting a fatal bullet into the very notion of a patriarchal family unit. The weak link in the cast is Carlee Baker as Peggy's ill-fated teacher. In a uniformly fine cast, otherwise, Baker stands out like a sore thumb. Still, she serves a function in the film, though it's a thankless one. Maybe the filmmakers decided not to inflict that fate on a better actress, even though it takes the viewer out of the movie.

McKee opens the movie with an hallucinatory prelude depicting The Woman in the wild, but when the focus of the movie moves to the Cleeks, he flattens his technique to the banal style of a sitcom, shot through, perhaps, with a touch of Lynchian irony. This is the equivalent of painting a wall white in order to spew blood all over it. The deadpan is arguably as horrifying as any of the violence, because it suggests that cis-sexist, patriarchal family units are the default unit. I think the movie takes a perverse joy in dismantling it. Given the horrors on display in this movie, maybe it deserves it. I mean, I know that the filmmakers are pitching things just this side of mustache-twirling, but then I read tales of real-life familial horrors or hear them told to me by some of my acquaintances and I wonder why I equivocate about this sort of thing.

Current tally: 30 films

First time viewings: 27

Around the web, most people are finishing up their Halloween festivities

The Vicar of VHS has been with us all month. Today, he offers up Skew.

Dr. AC takes on a bunch of Wes Craven in his latest diary over at Horror 101

Mr. Gable takes a break from his usual bailiwick to offer up some brief thoughts on some good horror movies as an offering for Halloween.

Tim over at The Other Side is back with a look at the horror-ish movies of Steven Spielberg

Pussy Goes Grrr finishes the month with a look at Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, a film I'll be getting to soon, by and by.

Friend of the blog, Laura, over at Who Can Turn the World Off With Her Smile puts her Halloween costume for this year on the web. It's utterly brilliant, even if it's not horror related. For horror, take a look at her terrific look at Mina in Stoker's Dracula instead.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

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