In "The Woman," the suburban ennui of 1999's "American Beauty
" collides head-on with the graphically violent nature of 2005's "High Tension
," and the results are nothing short of excitingly unique, deeply disturbing, and beautifully macabre. For writer-director Lucky McKee, this is his comeback picture after years of not being able to match up to his striking solo debut feature, 2003's breathtaking dark fable "May
." There was an oft-delayed, tossed-aside studio film in the interim (2006's misguided "The Woods"), a quirky episode of "Masters of Horror" entitled "Sick Girl," and an effective if little-seen Jack Ketchum adaptation, 2008's "Red." As it turns out, McKee's second collaboration with author Ketchum (who co-writes the screenplay and the novel from which this picture is based on) is the lucky charm, the two of them conspiring on a tone and premise and mash-up of genres that have never quite been tackled and achieved with this much ingenuity and tragic reverence. Is it horror? Is it drama? Is it black comedy? "The Woman" is all of the above and none of them at all, defying pat descriptions and easy conclusions. Whatever it is, it won't be easily forgotten.
From the outside, the Cleek family appears perfectly ordinary, living peacefully on a nice piece of land and happily attending neighborhood barbecues. Father Chris (Sean Bridgers) is a respected small-town lawyer. Wife Belle (Angela Bettis) is a homemaker still caring for 3-year-old daughter Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen) during the day. They have two other teenage children, obedient if brooding high schooler Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and chip-off-the-old-block middle schooler Brian (Zach Rand). The more one peers past this façade, however, the more things start to look unsettled and just plain off about them. Audience suspicions raise all the more when Chris heads off on a hunting trip and returns with a feral adult woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) he's found living in the forest. He ties her up in the storm cellarand it's a good thing, too, since she's wild enough to bite off and eat half of his finger when it gets too close to her mouthand wastes no time in showing her off to the rest of the family. Chris' goal is to teach her how to be "civilized," an example of hypocrisy if there ever was one as his despicable actions reveal how little he himself understands about the word.
It is a constant guessing game where "The Woman" is headed, and is all the better for it. Too often in today's landscape of formulaic filmmaking, the viewer can predict almost from the start where each movie will end up. Such is the sad but true case of paint-by-numbers Hollywood greenlighting. Writer-director Lucky McKee and co-writer Jack Ketchum, mavericks not afraid of jumping ship from the straight and narrow, make certain that this doesn't happen. Carefully, methodically, they uncover layers heretofore unseen, the Cleeks beginning as blank canvases of normalcy until a grimmer picture begins to show up with each new stroke. When Belle non-confrontationally questions her husband about keeping some strange woman in the cellar, he hits her before she's finished the sentence. Chris insists on harshly power-washing the dirt and grime off the woman when scrubbing her won't do. At night when he thinks everyone is asleep, he tiptoes down into the cellar to be with her. At school, Brian puts gum in his classmate's hairbrush so that he can attempt to come to her rescue, and at home he drills a hole in the cellar door so he can spy on the tied-up woman's naked body. Meanwhile, Peggy becomes increasingly withdrawn at school, torn apart by a home life she doesn't feel she can do anything about. When her young math teacher Ms. Raton (Carlee Baker) spots all the tell-tale signs that Peg might be pregnant, her decision whether or not to take this information to the parents could likely decide the fate of the rest of her life.
As a portrait of a criminally dysfunctional familyjust what is
Chris doing with those chained-up dogs in the shed?the film wavers between amusingly offbeat and emotionally shattering. When humor leaks into scenesafter knocking Belle out and sitting her up at the kitchen table, Chris makes the excuse to a visitor that she's simply "power-napping"it is natural and unforced, never overwhelming or making jest of what is, at heart, a horrific fairy tale that happens to be set in modern-day suburbia. Throughout, McKee twists conventional movie wisdom that would point to the woman as the villain by having the viewer waver sympathies to her side as Chris and Brian display sociopathic tendencies and Belle and Peggy choose not to do anything about what they know is wrong. Darlin', the youngest and purest of the clan, carries with her an innocent spirit still, sitting by the cellar door and playing music on her tape recorder to keep the captured woman company. In a family where the rest of the members have either been negatively influenced by the father's awful ways or beaten into submission, only Darlin' still has a chance at a life unaffected by the horrors she has seen.
Pollyanna McIntosh (2011's "Burke and Hare
") is chillingly credible as the title character, first seen in 2010's loosely-connected companion piece "The Offspring." Uttering few comprehensible words, McIntosh gets to the soul of this mystery woman, sparking a guttural cry for all the confusion, pain, and vengeance-yearning anger the Cleeks are putting her through. It seems understandable to fear her since she represents a certain unknown, but vying for our attentions is also the desire to see her tear apart a rotten family just as we know she's capable of. As Chris, Sean Bridgers (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama
") is scary in his own right by so convincingly essaying the kind of evil soul that exists in one's everyday surroundings. With a bright career and a tidy home, Chris believes he's untouchable. Belle knows different, letting out her grievances by the third act in a scene that turns from triumphant to doomed within seconds. Angela Bettis' (2003's "May
") anguished performance in the role is brave and unshakable, Belle's desire to see things change ultimately coming too little, too late to alter her and her family members' fates.
"The Woman" leads to a knife-cuttingly tense climax, one that alternates from justified to unfair and back again, the viewer recoiling in apprehension and then rooting for certain characters to get what's coming to them. Taking yet another turn, the final moments transcend the havoc on display for a closing image as provocatively loaded with suggestion as it is eerily resplendent. Heavily scored with a soundtrack of original songs by Sean Spillanea folksy-pop crisscrossthe picture's catchy, melodic sounds often stand in contrast to what is occurring on the screen, yet always seem to fit emotionally. Finally, the post-credits coda is an ideally wondrous capper, a blending of live-action and animated effects that gets to the poetic center of its foreboding and whimsy. In "The Woman," the American Dream goes terribly wrong, ripped wide open by a sharp pair of pliers, a husband and son's sickly raging libidos, a wild woman out to make them pay, and a secret in the doghouse probably not named Rover. Why can't more films be as proudly one-of-a-kind as this one? Lucky McKee makes it look so easy.