Can McKee and Ketchum’s female revenge movie balance its commentary with the über-visceral horror? Mark Lee finds out.
Female revenge movies must surely number enough now to justify a genre category of their own. Certainly, the template is clear enough; woman suffers prolonged violent sexual abuse at the hands of nasty, usually (but not always) sub-intelligent male idiots, then, after a period of devastated reflection, exerts a brutal and usually final revenge upon her deserving tormentors. What I often treat with a certain level of cynicism is the efforts to overstate, over-intellectualise, or simply exaggerate the feminist credentials of such films. Notable examples from the genre have been championed as “feminist” output, but I do wonder to what extent the feminist community would really support these pictures; after all, it feels somewhat disingenuous to suggest that a movie containing prolonged scenes of awful sexual abuse against women, followed by a usually shorter sequence of brutal (but often admittedly satisfying), violent revenge against the perpetrators, is somehow an incisive feminist commentary and vision.
I’m inclined towards similar cynicism when considering this latest entry, with its boldly straightforward gender-specific title, The Woman, and since Jack Ketchum is known for some overwhelmingly violent novels and screenplays, it seems that this movie is unlikely to change my future expectations.
For the most part, The Woman is actually a pleasant surprise, despite its overarchingly grim premise. The inevitably straightforward plot involves a feral woman living in the wild who is captured by Chris Cleek – a successful lawyer who executes his role as family patriarch with unquestionable dominance. Dragging her back to the basement of his farm and restraining her with wire, he introduces the rest of the family to his reluctant captive.
Director McKee captures the gender analysis of Ketchum’s screenplay well, and as the plot unfolds, we witness Cleek’s methods in keeping the distaff quarter of his family in check. The cruelty of the self-proclaimed ‘civilised’ man who attempts to ‘civilise’ the feral woman is acutely displayed, and perhaps most disturbingly, we witness the damaging influence of the man on his growing son, who is all too willing to learn the reprehensible behaviour his father exhibits. Cleek increasingly demonstrates how brutal he is prepared to be to maintain his masculine dominance over his domain and sphere of influence. Yet Cleek isn’t so one-dimensional as to only deliver brutality; he also uses his charm to ensnare, to divert, and to disguise, and it’s the handling of such characters which lends the movie a solid quotient of credibility for much of the running time.
Amongst the gender analysis and some interesting symbolism, the film also introduces some intriguing strands which emerge off of the central theme. There’s the condition and lightly suggested gender preference of elder daughter Peggy, the disdain which son Brian exhibits towards his female basketball rival at school, and the tangible gender failure of Cleek’s wife as she resists the opportunity to take responsible action against her husband in the basement, despite her instincts telling her otherwise. What’s especially powerful about McKee’s direction of this sequence in particular is that the feral woman and the beaten wife don’t exchange any words or even signals, and yet we can read their thoughts, their connection, and their desire for loyalty in the face of attack against their gender.
Credit should go to McKee for his strength in resisting the temptation to exploit at certain points during the main section of the film. One particular scene of abuse against the feral woman is handled with relative sensitivity, without patronising the audience, and the fact that we watch for almost an hour and a quarter without serious bloodshed shows how thoughtful the film is for an extended period. Additionally, the watershed scene with the family, where gender divisions are very clearly and physically drawn is planned and scripted with a strong eye for dramatic tension, although it doesn’t fully succeed with the demands on the actors to up the ante in such a short period of emotional transition.
McKee’s and Ketchum’s biggest challenge in this film is how to reconcile the careful construction of an interesting gender analysis with the gore-thirsty lust of their target audience. It’s this latter requirement for explicit and shocking gore which ultimately undermines The Woman‘s potential for presenting a truly balanced picture of the abuse between the genders, and when the inevitable explosion of violence finally arrives, it’s simply too outrageous and exaggerated to maintain credibility. In fact, the closing few minutes are so preposterous that they pose a serious threat of cancelling out the efforts in restraint and analysis completely. This perhaps unobtainable balance is the dilemma which all films of this type face, yet I can’t help but feel that a more balanced outcome would have ensured that the serious commentary which takes place for so much of the film would have widened its scope in terms of an audience. It’s a real shame that it deteriorates into farcical gore at the closing stages, though on balance, The Woman‘s first hour and a quarter is still one the of better attempts to integrate an analysis of masculine gender abuse into the framework of brutal, visceral horror.
Revolver Entertainment release The Woman Blu-ray in a well-packaged little unit complete with outer cardboard sleeve. Released on a BD50 disc, the transfer maintains the native aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and is presented in high definition using 1080p screen resolution. Using the AVC-MPEG4 codec, the end result is superb, with a clean and rich presentation which is difficult to fault. The spectrum of colour is balanced extremely well; the tonal balance is slightly muted to lend the film its requisite murkiness, but the lush greens of the countryside and surrounding forests are reproduced vividly. Nature plays a critical role in this film, and the transfer ensures that nature is portrayed in a manner that is transparent and true. The darker shades are solid where they need to be, especially in the gloom of the filthy basement, and with this high definition format presenting a level of accuracy and detail which can sometimes be neglected in this band of horror film, it’s difficult to find much by way of fault.
The attractive menu system is straightforward and easy to use, and there are trailers for Elite Squad: The Enemy Within and Snowtown, which trigger automatically when the disc is inserted.
The audio reproduction matches the visual in terms of quality. The soundtrack uses DTS-HD Master Audio, and you can select to listen using either 2.0 stereo or 5.1 surround. The latter track in particular proves an absorbing and dramatic experience, with plenty of use of the rear speakers to unsettle and unnerve. Dialogue is clear throughout, and the sound delivery is clean without distortion. A rich and powerful bass delivery underpins the clarity of the higher end, and if you are using a sub it will be used to great effect.
Sean Spillane’s mainly country-oriented musical soundtrack is unlikely to appeal to everyone, but I found it rather fitting and enjoyable, and the quality of its reproduction is certainly not in question.
Making of The Woman is a slick and professional presentation which is richly rewarding for its 25 minute tenure. The piece is thoughtfully constructed, following a linear path of the film’s making. It features interviews with a variety of cast and crew, an insight into the gory special effects, a glimpse of the premiere, and is accompanied by a fitting musical backdrop.
A Deleted Scenes slot runs for approximately five minutes, and it’s a shame to report that there is no commentary to guide us through the decisions to reject the sequences. That said, whilst none of the deleted scenes are noticeably bad, they do come across as somewhat innocuous, which might explain why they became surplus to requirements.
Meet the Makers features four minutes of the director, producer, DP, editor, writer (Jack Ketchum), some of the cast, and the production designer discussing their ideas and motivations for the film
There’s a seven minute short animated film entitled Mi Burro, which is a Lucky McKee production, and it makes for truly bizarre viewing. There is also the opportunity to play Sean Spillane’s Distracted, which features in the film. The music is set to a rotating sequence of stills from the movie.
The real treat here is the 42 minute slot, The Film4 FrightFest Total Film Panel, which features Total Film’s Jamie Graham interviewing a panel of American horror film directors (Larry Fessenden, Ti West, Adam Green, Joe Lynch, Lucky McKee himself, and Andrew van den Houten) in front of the FrightFest audience. The panel discuss the American horror scene today, the proliferation of remakes, and the difficulties of working with creativity and integrity in the face of film producer pressure. Lucky McKee brings some of the most valuable comments to the discussion, particularly regarding the depiction of horrific and violent material, and in what tone this should be represented. The discussion is inevitably charged with some substantial egos, and Adam Green in particular is typically verbose, but for horror fans this is a truly absorbing segment.
All extras benefit from the same high reproduction values as the main feature in terms of both visual and audio.
Whilst controversial and confrontational, McKee’s disturbing caricature of the brutality of inter-gender politics is for a large part an intelligent and thought-provoking picture. It’s disappointingly inevitable that the pressure-cooker tension explodes into a Grand Guignol climax of ridiculous proportions, although the difficulty for McKee in balancing the excessive visceral shocks with the carefully constructed dynamics that precede them is clear. That said, for those who can accept such polarisation within a single picture, this high quality release with its modest yet enjoyable extras will not disappoint.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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