Arguably director Lucky McKee’s most radically troubling film is his 2011 hotbed of subversive themes, The Woman, which generated much distress upon its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Now the second chapter of a loosely calibrated trilogy based on and inspired by cult author Jack Ketcham (which began with 2009’s Offspring directed by Andrew van den Houten and ended with 2019’s Darlin’ from director Pollyanna McIntosh), McKee’s mounting (which was adapted from a text he wrote alongside Ketcham) is a violent, disturbing skewering of the heteropatriarchy and the subjugation of women defining the inherent misogyny of intergenerational subjugation.
The film’s own eventual cult following assists in marking it as one of McKee’s most notable works, though its lack of commercial success assisted in cementing a notoriety which his output since has not matched.
The Woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) is the last surviving member of a barbaric, uncivilized tribe of roaming cannibals in the American Mid-West. One day while hunting, Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) spies her, and concocts a plan to capture her and civilize her in the cellar on his rural, isolated family property. It’s immediately clear that Chris is king of his castle, and his long-suffering wife (Angela Bettis) looks on in anguish as she realizes her husband has other designs on this woman beyond civilization. The effects of the captive woman in the basement have immediate and severe ripple effects on the Cleeks, revealing a score of terrible dysfunction. Eldest daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is hiding the pregnancy visited upon her by dad, while teen son Brian (Zach Rand) begins to copy his father’s amorous advances towards The Woman. Only their youngest daughter Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen) seems blissfully unaware of the terrible goings on at home. In their small-town community, only an outspoken teacher (Carlee Baker) seems to have one of the children’s interests in mind, though her meddling conjures a cataclysmic finale, and the revelation of perhaps an even darker secret the Cleeks are hiding.
One doesn’t have to see either film sandwiching the space of The Woman, though at least familiarity with Ketcham and/or Offspring might assist in defining the enigma of the titular character, who is meant to be the last surviving clan of cannibals who have been roaming the American wilderness for decades. The pronounced opening credits work well enough to associate her as a feral figure, as if born from the objective bosom of Mother Nature like one of Zeus’ goddess progeny from any various natural elements.
As played by Pollyanna McIntosh, she is a ferociously compelling figure, a mix of guttural growls and grunts punctuating her animalistic gait, with a dirt streaked visage, gnarl of mussy hair and maw full of black teeth for an extra bit of zest. What makes McKee’s film so continually uncomfortable is the complicity of women in their own debasement at the hands of men, so told through this microcosm which unspools like a dark fairy tale.
Astute perceptions of normalized dysfunction play out believably, particularly through another lowkey, jittery performance form McKee’s past muse Angela Bettis. If only the remaining cast members could have conjured the same gravitas, The Woman would perhaps seem a little less roughhewn than it is, for as viciously unappealing as Sean Bridgers is, he often lands in the land of caricature. Worse, the casting and performance of Carlee Baker as the empathetic lesbian schoolteacher to Lauren Ashley Carter’s pregnant teen, tends to ruin whole swathes of the film.
Although this lends a sort of B-movie exploitation vibe to The Woman, it’s eventually a far cry from McKee’s stellar 2002 debut May, which featured a phenomenal Bettis in a revamping of Frankenstein (or even McKee’s contributions to the “Masters of Horror” series, “Sick Girl,” also featuring Bettis). Still, subversive symbols and motifs assist in crafting a violent critique of our continual embrace of the heteronormative which demands the continually accepted oppression and abuse of women, even if it is a project steered and tinged by a masculine perspective.
Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆