On the surface, The Woman raises questions about gender relations in modern society, while comparing notes with Deliverance (1972) in portraying civilisation as a thin veneer for the beast that lurks within. The premise is a variation of the German fairytale, Iron John, about a wild man who is discovered in the woods, captured by soldiers, imprisoned and ‘tamed’. Iron John also became the basis for a famous book of the same name by Robert Bly, which led to the ‘Masculinist’ movement in the United States in the 1990s; a grassroots movement claiming that masculinity was in crisis due to social and family breakdown and advocating that men should concentrate on developing masculine traits in themselves and their sons. Although not necessarily seen as a backlash against feminism, the Masculinist movement in popular culture can be seen in the surfeit of ‘survivalist’ gameshows and ‘boys adventure’ stories on TV, and also in the lads-mags phenomenon, which tend to show men as half adults, trapped somewhere between childhood and maturity, a state in which they find it hard to become responsible leaders, carers and fathers, which in turn leads to the passing down of that immaturity through the generations.
In part, The Woman satirises this through its portrayal of the main character, Chris Cleer, a man who feels that his masculinity is constantly under threat and goes to increasingly desperate lengths to protect it. As a study of such a male, The Woman succeeds really well – for the most part. In other respects though, McKee’s film is a bit hazy in what it is trying to say.
The Woman herself functions in a similar way to the Terence Stamp character in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968), in that she forces each of the family members to confront what until now they have tried to conceal in order to operate as part of a family. To Chris she represents what he would like to achieve through his hunting trips but fails to do: namely to be at ‘one with nature.’ His attempt to ‘civilise’ the Woman is a really a desire to subjugate her to his will absolutely, to achieve a complete domination over her that is impossible to do with his family without the family unit breaking down (which is of course what happens in the end when he finally loses control of himself and beats up his wife). Not only does the Woman represent the complete self-awareness that Chris lacks, she ultimately embodies the perceived threat that women pose to his masculinity. Throughout the film Chris increasingly resents his actions being questioned by the women around him, and finally explodes when the young teacher appears to question his abilities as a father. His failings have clearly been passed down to his alienated son (whom, for example, he doesn’t take on his hunting trips with him). The son, disturbed by the gradual disintegration of the family also chooses to blame women for his problems, using the captive Woman as an outlet for his sadism. The mother, played by Angela Bettis, represses her anger at her husband’s increasingly unreasonable behaviour towards The Woman, out of a responsibility towards her children. She does not want to rock the boat. Meanwhile, the eldest daughter holds deep misgivings towards her father, which The Woman brings to the fore.
Gradually, the family is forced, through Chris’s behaviour, to confront these things, and The Woman build to a tremendous head of steam, as each member of the family is forced to choose his or her allegiances. Frustratingly though, the film suddenly unravels, losing its way in the final sequences. Firstly, McKee plants the suggestion that Chris is the father of his daughter’s child, something suggested but not confirmed. Secondly comes the revelation that Chris is keeping a second feral child - ‘Socket’ – captive: what are we to make of this? Is Socket another of member of the Woman’s clan? The Woman’s child? Or is she Chris and his wife’s child that they have rejected due to birth defects? The film does not make this clear. Then the film climaxes in a sequence of extreme (and slightly ludicrous) gore, which also tends to undermine what has gone before; the savagery, indiscriminately meted out by the feral women feels like a descent into nihilism - or maybe, like the grunge soundtrack, just an attempt to please the gore fans. In particular the fate of the mother seems ill-judged. She has clearly made a journey from subjugation to strength, and yet is punished for it (presumably for her complicity in the incest?). The killing of the female teacher feels like a scapegoat or sacrificial killing on the part of McKee and Ketchum. Finally the Woman and Socket are revealed as cannibals but to what purpose?
As a director, McKee makes sometimes bold stylistic choices, but there are times when his uncertainty also shows in the storytelling devices. Early sequences use dissolves whose purpose is unclear. Some of the early scenes are confusing. His use of grunge songs on the soundtrack instead of a traditional score is sometimes striking, but more often gets in the way. Again their purpose is unclear; perhaps they are an attempt to ‘counterpoint’ the action but mostly fail to do this. Most of the story is up front which tends to underplay mystery and suspense in the earlier sequences. However, the filmmakers are deliberately showing their hand in adopting these stylistic choices, alerting us, as it were to their presence, and this invites us to read The Woman as the desire to make a statement, even if, at times it is unclear exactly what the statement is.