Thursday, July 30, 2015

Film Review/Analysis - "The Woman"

Spoilers for The Woman after the jump:


CW: This review contains descriptions of domestic abuse and misogynistic violence within the film.

Chris Cleek of The Woman is one of the most terrible figures in horror movie history. Over 105 nauseating minutes, his wife, kids, and the film’s title character (a woman he has found living in the woods, and whom he attempts to “civilize”) will all suffer greatly under his cruelty. His son will begin to emulate him. By the time the credits roll, several people will be dead, either by his hand or as a direct result of his actions. And the survivors will be irrevocably scarred following a conclusion whose vicious escalation and overall impact are reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Any list of the most terrifying cinematic characters that doesn’t include this man (played by Sean Bridgers in a startlingly visceral display of pure evil) feels grossly inadequate. He is a pantheon creation, in a film that seeks to both frighten and wound. 

Unlike many of horror cinema's most iconic human monsters, however, Chris is not simply an unreadable abyss, hiding behind a mask as he stalks his prey from the shadows. He is instead a much more common kind of monster, wearing a much more common kind of mask: an abuser who presents himself as nothing more or less than a good neighbor, honest worker, and family man (and indeed, thinks he is one). Lucky McKee's film introduces him at a summer barbecue, making arrangements to buy his long-time neighbor's house, so she can be closer to her dying husband. He is compassionate towards her, promising to give her a fair price for the place. His wife Belle and their kids (Peggy, Brian, and Darlin') seem like reasonably happy people too; there is of course some bickering between the family members as they pile into the car to head home, but it appears to be of the good-natured variety that occurs within all families from time to time.

The Woman's appearance—and Chris's decision to capture her and chain her in an makeshift underground prison cell—changes that initial perception in a hurry. The scenes in which he reveals what he's done initially flummox; Peggy and Belle (Darlin' is too young to fully understand the situation, though she is no doubt affected by it) are clearly disturbed, but they go along without any real complaint. Their flustered compliance seems strange, until Belle raises even the slightest of objections later on, and is answered—before she can even finish her sentence—with a sudden slap to the face. Her reaction is that of someone who has been hit many times before, and Chris's true nature suddenly could not be more clear. Brian, meanwhile, has begun to commit his own small acts of cruelty at school, gaining revenge on a girl (for the "offense" of being better than him at basketball) by tampering with her hairbrush so that it sticks to her hair, forcing her to painfully yank it out.

From that point onward, The Woman becomes the kind of endurance test that its infamous Sundance premiere would suggest. Not just because of the level of violence onscreen, which is actually lower than one might expect given the film's reputation. Horrible things happen, but McKee is a director who keeps many of the most sickening events mostly off-camera, or else obscured by rapid editing or an object placed in front of the camera (to list two techniques used here). Far too many horror films about male violence towards women are reprehensible in the way they foreground displays of suffering as some sort of twisted dare meant to appeal to hardcore horror viewers. (Will you look away? How about now?) There's none of that here, at least not until the final few scenes, at which point The Woman has justified its shock images by way of the empathy it shows towards its trapped characters.

That empathy—and thus the horror—is in large part a function of the acting. Bettis (so great in McKee's other masterpiece, May) especially turns in a draining performance, largely enduring in silence and (after that initial slap) reluctantly participating in her husband's heinous plan in the futile hope of keeping her world at least somewhat in order. One can constantly see the rage lingering behind her eyes, though, and when Brian's earlier behavior finally escalates to far worse displays of violence towards The Woman, she finally lets it out in a scene that, for one brief second, feels possibly triumphant. Then, in one of the movie's most angering and deflating moments, Chris responds by simply pummeling her into near-unconsciousness. The Woman will end with some measure of vengeance taken on him, but Belle will not be saved by it. Her story ends in pain, like those of so many in real life.

Why? Why does this happen? The Woman does not beat around the bush in addressing this question. It happens because of misogyny engrained in too many of our young men, then taught (as Brian's story illustrates) to future generations when those men become fathers. We then turn a blind eye to the effects of that teaching, as McKee's film shows by subjecting the entire community to withering criticism for their willful ignorance of the Cleeks' plight. At one point Belle encounters a woman she knows in a grocery store, and her withdrawn distress does not prompt any legitimate worry, only a display of empty faux-concern. Meanwhile, Peggy is continuously depressed and isolated at school, but it is only after noticing a change in her attire (and her frequent need to be excused during class) that one of her teachers, Ms. Raton, figures out something is wrong. Her deduction that Peggy is pregnant is correct, but she once again ignores the signs of abuse. She continues to ignore them even after Peggy shows reluctance to tell her parents, eventually going behind her back to inform Chris (who the film strongly suggests is the father) about the pregnancy.

This scene sets in motion The Woman's extended, relentlessly brutal finale, which is as difficult to watch as it is virtuosic. The camera moves with violent purpose as Chris (with Peggy following and begging him to stop) drags Ms. Raton across the yard to one of the sheds, at one point panning 360 degrees in an unbroken take as Bridgers delivers an extended rant that reveals the depths of his hatred for women. One could almost argue the moment is too on-the-nose, but this is the same sort of venom that has been spewed by multiple mass murderers who use their misogyny to justify their actions, and that occurs every day in comments sections across the Internet. Whether he would make this speech at this particular moment is debatable, but does it really matter? The horror of the sentiment, and its clear rooting in real-life attitudes, is the point. And when the bloodshed that follows Chris's tirade is finally over, it is a horror that the film's three survivors all choose to flee.

There are versions of this story that end with a feeling of righteous triumph: the male aggressor dead at the hands of the woman (or women) he has wronged. The Woman ends with exactly this scenario (as Peggy unleashes the chained Woman from her captivity, allowing her to claim her revenge), but deliberately omits any semblance of triumph. True, it is on some level cathartic, after all the suffering the film has made us bear witness to, when we watch Chris meet his gruesome fate at The Woman's hands. But Ms. Raton, Belle, and Brian (a boy guilty of terrible crimes, to be sure, but who is ultimately a victim here as well) all meet similarly graphic fates that inspire nothing but abject horror. It is an evil, broken world that would allow something like this to happen, when there were so many opportunities to stop it.

In the end, Peggy and Darlin' are left to face The Woman, who beckons the younger girl to come with her, while exchanging a meaningful moment with Peggy over the baby currently inside her. It is a moment of solidarity between the two, but also a question: what to do next? Find the police, and rely on the community that has already failed you (and your family) once not to do so again? Or follow The Woman into an unknown future in the woods, but one that's at least away from the life of misery you've known? There is a moment of brief consideration, before Peggy tentatively (then with increasing confidence) sets out behind her sister and their new protector. Order will not be restored, not when these three have looked into society's black heart and seen what lurks inside. The Woman's final message is crystal clear: that heart must be destroyed. Until then, Peggy's decision to escape makes brutal, perfect sense. 

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