The anger and the outrage started on January 23, 2011. Jack McKee’s The Woman premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and reports began circulate that someone fainted during the screening while a viral Youtube video showed an irate ticket holder that left the screening calling the film inhumane and lacking in any value.
The producers could not have been any happier about the publicity.
The Woman then spent the year working the festival circuit playing at the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Melbourne International Film Festival before landing in Ontario at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival in October 2011.
The Woman was written by envelope-pushing Jack Ketchum (The Girl Next Door) and Lucky McKee and is considered a sequel to 2009’s The Offspring. The film introduces us to The Cleek family lead by father Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), wife Belle (Angela Bettis), daughters Peggy and Darlin’ (played by Lauren Ashley Carter and Shyla Molhusen) and teenage son Brian (Zach Rand).
The film opens with an introduction to the ‘wild woman’ (Pollyanna MacIntosh) who will become the focus of the story. We watch as she hunts in the wild and scavenges through the terrain and the elements while nursing an injury to her side. She is clad only in tattered clothing and her filth seems so caked on her skin that wading through a shallow stream does little to clean her appearance. Chris happens across her while out hunting in the woods. But instead of the story going all Jodie Foster Nell on us, McKee and Ketchum take things down an unexpected and violent path wherein Chris takes the woman home and secures her in his cellar where she will be treated like a wild animal by most members of the Cleek family.
As the film progresses, the sadistic nature of Chris towards both his basement prisoner and his own family bare moments in the film where audiences become dead silent in either shock or disgust. And the slaps Chris swings at his wife are tame in comparison to the treatment of the woman who is strung up, raped and repeatedly threatened at gunpoint in the cellar.
Because the woman came from the wild, there is no police looking for her. No family or friends going door to door looking for their lost loved one. It only further isolates the woman and leaves her under the control of the Cleek family for as long as they may be able to keep their new pet a secret.
For a film that is classified as a horror/thriller, McKee sure takes his time in getting to any scene of high tension. Instead, he allows the story to focus on the Cleek family members, in particular Chris and daughter Peg, and how they both individual deal with the weight of the involuntary confinement crime on the family unit. Sean Bridgers shines as an innocent wholesome man incapable of such atrocities. The film hinges on his performance and Bridgers knocks it out of the park leaving you with the idea that no other actor could so have embodied the Ketchum drafted character.
When the more graphic violence does occur, we are well saturated in our character’s development. So when son Brian - who is constantly looking to impress or be like his father - enters the cellar with a pair of needle nose pliers and uses them on the woman’s nipples while he himself masturbates, we are shocked, but not surprised.
A development between Peg and her teacher is the catalyst that unwinds the Cleek family secret and sets up the uneasy and violent concluding chapters in the film’s final reel. Most get what’s coming to them in the end, but the ‘creation’ of a new character didn’t fit with the psychological tension of the film’s base.
The audience leaving the Underground Theatre in Toronto after the film’s screening were silent and likely still in a state of absorption. There weren’t many scenes in the movie to bring an audience to its feet and its darkness (both in content and in the confines of the dimly lit basement) made you feel like a prisoner yourself – one that needs a day to collect the thoughts before offering an option on the viewing.
We were on fence. We thought it was a good character study that took far too long to become what it inevitably wanted it to be. One thing for sure – The Woman can take its place alongside The Human Centipede and A Serbian Film as films that we cannot openly recommend to an unsuspecting audience. But is The Woman lacking in any value and ‘should be burned’ as suggested by the irate Sundance attendee? Not as long as Gigli appears on DVD shelves.