Intermittently surreal, stupid, sickening and superb, The Woman is a film that will surely move you, whether one way or the other. It's been something like a month since I saw the wretched thing, and though I didn't initially find the experience of it very pleasant, it's one that's stayed with me ever since, as precious few horror movies do.
Directed by cult favourite writer/director Lucky McKee - whose May you might recall making a minor mark - from a script by award-winning genre author Jack Ketchum, The Woman is in fact a sequel to the 2009 film Offspring, which I neither saw, nor do I now want to see... because McKee didn't make it.
Anyway, in Offspring, as I understand it, we meet the titular woman of The Woman: the makeshift matriarch of a family of feral, flesh-eating forest folk. Seemingly she alone survives the events of Offspring, for in The Woman we meet her on her own terms - as does fucked-up family man and hobby hunter Chris Cleek - which is to say, covered in her own filth and living off the land, with a cut in her gut that'd be the end of a lesser person.
Chris, whose family seem to live in perpetual fear of him, and for good reason, takes an unhealthy interest in the woman, as voyeuristic as it is sadistic. Soon, having tired of watching her wash through the scope of his hunting rifle, he contrives to capture this strange specimen, ostensibly to help her back to health, but in truth to use and abuse her as he sees fit. Horribly, Chris' son Brian seems to share his father's fascination with the woman - how like father, like son of him - while the wife and distant daughter of the Cleek clan are too terrified to do anything but play along. In one scene, among the most disturbing in a thoroughly discomfiting film, they help him clean her tortured body with a pressure washer.
So it goes - that is excruciatingly - for an hour and a half, every other moment of which feels like something out of your worst nightmare, and mine. The Woman is a nasty, mean-spirited, unremittingly grim film that the faint of heart would be well to give a wide berth... but if you can stomach it, Lucky McKee's latest also so happens to be his greatest, as powerful in its inimitable way as the woman whose systematic suffering it revolves around is powerless.
Fearless Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh positively disappears into the role of the woman, such that I did a double-take upon seeing her headshot on the IMDB. Opposite her, Sean Bridgers as Chris Cleek is every inch McIntosh's match, though his is a more insidious portrait of a family man gone head-first into the deep end, to find himself at home in the dark waters there. Supporting the pair, all nervous energy and glazed-over emotionally, Angela Bettis (none other than May in May) paints a truly chilling picture of Chris' hopeless, helpless wife Belle.
The kids are, yes, less impressive - though the littlest of the three is abominably adorable - but the poorest performance of the piece, and it is a very poor performance, almost kills The Woman completely. Carlee Baker as Genevieve Raton, a teacher who gets caught up in the goings-on in and around the Cleek residence, is simply intolerable; voluptuous but vacant, she seems a pretty face for the sake of a pretty face, and her scenes stop McKee's surprisingly subtle study in its tracks.
Similarly, the music is a mixed bag. There are a couple of terrific, Trent Reznor-esque tracks original to the film, all scratch and atmosphere, but interspersed as they are between a selection of period pop. rock songs, ripped right out of Donnie Darko, they seem at odds; discordant, and while I can understand the purpose of such juxtaposition in principle, in practice one or the other, whole-hog, would have been far preferable.
Otherwise, The Woman works... and given its singularly shocking content, its nontraditional execution, and its occasional confusion of the talented and the talentless, that's not a little surprising. But from the awesome pre-credits montage to the palpable catharsis of the last act, The Woman effects such shattering beauty and brokeback brutality that if you have the least interest in what horror can be, heedless of the entry requirements to the multiplexes where most modern movies make their overinflated budgets back, then this film is the proof, and the pudding, and the black cherry on top.