Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Woman (2011)

I finally got to see this last night, long after the controversy over the film has died down – possibly a good thing. I approached the film knowing very little about it or the debates that followed the film on its release a year ago, or even about the director, Lucky McKee. I saw his Masters of Horror entry Sick Girl a few years ago, but frankly it didn’t leave much of an impression. I came to The Woman, then, fairly 'cold'.

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.


James Gracey said...

Wonderful write up, Jon. I had no idea this was a variation on a German fairytale! I guess that makes sense – The Woman was not without it's darkly 'fairytale' moments. My main gripe with it was how very manipulative, simplistic even, and morally black and white it was; the thinly veiled points about gender relations, familial dysfunction, spousal abuse and contemporary morality are all just hammered home with a very blunt intensity. There are no shades of grey. Having said that, I still thought this was a very powerful film - and if one can 'enjoy' a film like this, well then, I did.

The 'Masculinist' movement you mentioned also reminded me of the ethos behind Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Again, the character of Chris in The Woman was just too black and white - great performance, but I just hated the character.

I also didn't like the fate of Angele Bettis' character either, especially as you say, after she makes such a gruelling journey from subjugation to strength. Bettis is such a fine and underrated actress, and she’s great in this role. If you’re not familiar with McKee’s earlier work, I’d really recommend May; a very odd and strangely moving little film. The Woods is also worth a look, especially for Patricia Clarkson’s icily composed and creepy performance.

Jon T said...

Thanks James, I read your review over at Behind The Couch and I have to say I agreed with your points. I thought the character of Chris started off interesting, reading him as a 'satire' of the kind of guy who would sign up to the masculinist movement (the hunting in the woods and all that) but became less interesting as he was depicted more and more as an out and out bad guy as the film went on (the suggestion of incest and that entrapped someone else in the past) Of course you could argue that McKee was trying to show how absurd such a man is. But then the combination of what happened to the Angela Bettis and the ridiculous gore at the end seemed to undermine the good things in the film eg. the satire. What side of the fence is McKee on ???! I'm not sure.
I will try to catch May and The Woods; until then, the jury is still out on McKee, as they say!

Anonymous said...

I thought the dog child at the end was clearly a previous child of theirs. That's what drove home how broken the mother character truly was. The whole time you expect her to tap into that lioness instinct and kill the father. In the end you learn that she has already let the father turn a child into a beast, ignored his molestation of their daughter, and a gut punch takes her out of a fair chunk of the climax. This clashes with the classic ero guro gender subversion sensibility of The Woman character. The father objectifies her on a primal/philosophical level (he wants to be an alpha male with a large territory) and in the end it is his undoing. It's a very loud, schizophrenic movie based on a novel by a horror writer who takes true crime stories and fictionalizes them. It was bound to cause a little controversy.

Jon Towlson said...

That makes things a little clearer! Thanks for that.