Loaded with torture, rape, and other explicit abuses enacted on a variety of female characters by a single oppressive male, Lucky McKee's grim parable "The Woman" earns its status as the most controversial movie from January's Sundance Film Festival. However, because that reputation has no mind of its own, it buries the function of those grisly acts.
It's fair to say that "The Woman," in which backcountry lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) captures a cave dweller in the neighboring forest and locks her in his shed, intends to critique fundamental constructs about female domesticity. But it does so with a schoolyard sense of justice that deadens its potential to rise above outright condemnations of its content. It's impossible to defend "The Woman" without also admitting its flaws.
Adapted from the novel by McKee and Jack Ketchum, "The Woman" technically begins where the 2009 Ketchum adaptation "Offspring" left off, with the last surviving member of a feral clan (Pollyanna McIntosh, in a physically extreme performance) wandering the woods in a desperate bid to survive. That's when Chris nabs her and brings her back to his own clan, a trio of submissive kin made up of his meek wife Belle (Angela Bettis), admiring son Brian (Zach Rand), mopey teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) and her clueless younger sister Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen). Chaining up his prisoner and deeming her the family's "project," he subjects her to a series of twisted lessons in civilized behavior.
At least, that's what he claims to do. Instead, much of "The Woman" involves the psychotic Chris' continually demeaning acts against the woman to assert his authority, which grows to resemble his larger disdain for the second sex. As a showcase of brutish misogyny and the ripples of trauma it creates, "The Woman" maintains a steady critical perspective, mainly due to a group of deeply felt performances.
With ironically upbeat musical montages and the the developing frustration and confusion over Chris' domineering behavior shared by certain members of the household, McKee crafts a unique experience that's neither outright horror or complete satire, but rather a near-perceptive breakdown of the modern family. There's only enough there, however, to hint at a sharper indictment that never arrives.
From the moment that Chris loses a finger to his captive, it's clear that the tables will eventually turn; McKee certainly doesn't celebrate Chris as the hero of his story. Nevertheless, the only thing controversial about "The Woman" is its failure to trump disdain for its fairly explicit displays. McKee successfully turns Chris' prisoner into a metaphor for the inherent chauvinism of the modern American household, but he doesn't apply it to any decisive end. Instead, the movie drowns the premise in an empty display of bloody revenge. There are plenty of guts, but "The Woman" doesn't have enough to make its feminist rhetoric stick.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Despite the controversial angle, "The Woman" is being released by the small management and content company The Collective in partnership with BloodyDisgusting.com, which probably won't be able to garner it much in the way of box office receipts when it opens this Friday. But it may generate enough word-of-mouth in the horror community to find a warm home on VOD.