Title: The Woman
Director: Lucky McKee
Starring: Sean Bridgers, Pollyanna McIntosh, Angela Bettis, Lauren Ashley Carter, Zach Rand, Carlee Baker, Shyla Molhusen
“Nell,” this ain’t, that’s for sure. Adapted by director Lucky McKee from a novel he co-wrote with Jack Ketchum, “The Woman” tells the story of an antisocial, outright feral female who’s lived in the wild as an animal, and what happens when she’s captured and held by a rural family, in a perverted attempt to foist “civilized” behavior upon her. Walkouts supposedly overwhelmed the movie’s Sundance Film Festival premiere presentation earlier this year, and it’s easy to understand why, given the pattycake niceness of so many indie narratives, especially in that venue. “The Woman” is at once grim and kind of outlandish, but also extraordinarily well crafted — more than enough to queasily pull an audience along, even somewhat against their will.
Real estate lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) lives a very traditional and seemingly simple life with his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and family, which also includes teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), pubescent son Brian (Zach Rand) and youngest daughter Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). One day he stumbles across a filthy, hunched over woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) bathing in a nearby creek; he later returns and captures her. Shackling her up in the family’s cellar, he presents her cultivation and betterment as a “family project.” Neither the woman (who communicates only in icy glares and pre-verbal grunts) chomping off a portion of Chris’ finger and certainly not the growing unease of his wife can dissuade him from this seemingly bizarre focus; no one else gets a vote in this very patriarchal hierarchy.
Of course, bad things eventually happen. The Cleeks clean the grit and grime off of the woman, but she shows no real signs of settling down and accepting her new surroundings. As Belle becomes more resistant to her presence, it exacerbates other familial tensions, and reveals nastier characteristics of Chris’ personality. In a seemingly unrelated strand, one of Peggy’s teachers (Carlee Baker) becomes convinced she’s pregnant, and eventually makes the mistake of trying to show up and talk to her parents. A friendly sing-along does not cap the proceedings.
In films like the striking “May” and “Red,” McKee has shown an unusual flair for summoning dread and horror from curious places and angles, and part of the genius of “The Woman” is that it is the exact opposite of gleefully deranged. Its concept may be peculiar and out-there, but McKee imbues it with a deep and disarming ordinariness, allowing depravity to kind of bleed into the picture on its own slow terms. This seems crazy, of course, but its snarling central subject aside, everyone else in “The Woman” is essentially acting as if they are in a family drama — which of course they are. Chris seems a punitive figure, but the full measure of his psychosis comes into focus slowly, like a Polaroid picture.
The direction is solid, and McKee makes superb use of excellent music from Sean Spillane. The performances, too, are gripping. McIntosh, who resembles a kind of more feral and deranged Milla Jovovich, is edgy and dangerous. Bridgers, meanwhile, has a vocal timbre that sort of recalls Will Ferrell at his most straight-faced, but that makes the arc of his character revelation that much more unnerving, in a way.
If there’s a strike against “The Woman,” it’s that its finale feels like a manifestation of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Things unravel at such a quick, woolly clip, and its descent into gory comeuppance feels like something of a sop to genre audiences — more of a payoff for the investment of their time rather than something invested in character. Perhaps in the source material there is a deeper explication of the elicited themes that McKee and Ketchum are aiming to shine a spotlight on in twisted fashion, but these don’t convincingly pay off here, and are a huge disappointment relative to the rest of the movie. Still, this “Woman” is undeniably unforgettable, and in a world of measured entertainment that so often banks on an evocation of familiar feelings, that’s certainly saying something. For more information, visit www.TheWomanMovie.com.
Written by: Brent Simon