This sort of technical approach, and it is one that is occasionally repeated throughout, is certainly a striking cinematic choice but also one that risks severe dissonance, throwing the audience out of the film, but the way in which director Lucky McKee employs it is skilful enough to just about make it work. That early moment in the film is also seedy, it’s nasty and it’s almost blackly comic and this is highly important in setting the tone to some degree for what is about to come. Chris is a little pathetic hiding behind a hill leering at this tall, strong woman whilst seemingly being somewhat afraid of her.
When Chris next returns to the woods he comes prepared and captures her, taking her to his home, locking her in a shed in his garden with manacles binding her arms. This powerful woman is now his pet, an illusion that is made all the more literal as the film progresses, and he has dominion over her, something that he seems to think is totally natural and acceptable. Viewing this degradation and the way in which he demonstrates his power over her is immediately upsetting and disturbing.
Chris is not an evil loner though, he’s a ‘family man’ and very soon he introduces his captured woman to his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and his three children, Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), Brian (Zach Rand) and Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). Belle and Peggy both appear appalled by what Chris has done but at the same time they seem to except the bizarre decision of their patriarch to keep this woman and ‘civilise’ her. The son, Brian, has a devilish look on his face that alludes to the apple not falling far from the tree and makes everything we see all the more chilling; this approach to abuse and subjugating attitudes to women is going to continue beyond this one generation.
Chris seems to have ultimate control over his family and the reaction we see the first time his decision is truly questioned is a release to the film’s tense construction but the implication of this scene only heightens the tension even more. Running through the whole film is an undercurrent of threat from Chris and this bubbling tension is gripping and sickeningly uncomfortable, but at all times purposeful. McKee orchestrates the tension beautifully too with slower scenes, of which there are many, still holding powerful and tense emotional feeling, a feeling one cannot shake even days after having seen the film.
McKee manages to sustain an extraordinary level of threat and tension for the entirety of The Woman and the somewhat cathartic but wonderfully ambiguous climax to the film is not a sufficient release of pressure following the preceding 100 minutes, you’re still left beaten up by what you’ve seen and uncomfortably on edge. And rightly so. The Woman is not an easy watch and nor should it be. This orchestrated tension adds to the entirely appropriate tone of the film, it’s cruel and nasty. It’s rare that a film is really quite as cruel and nasty as this but The Woman should be, it is about cruel and nasty subjects and themes. McKee and co-writer Ketchum never give the audience an ‘out’ either, we are stuck with this family and its despicable male members, unable to escape and unable to intervene. Ketchum and McKee want you to think about the way in which humans treat eachother and they want you to keep thinking about this long after the film has finished.
The Woman does something quite extraordinary, in the way in which it so explicitly thrusts its themes to the forefront of the film but never once succumbs to simple soap-boxing. Thrilling, upsetting, deeply disturbing and searingly vital, McKee and Ketchum’s The Woman is one of the most fascinating and powerful films I’ve seen this year and watching it was a truly extraordinary experience.
The Woman is released in UK cinemas on the 30th of September.
This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of FrightFest 2011.