Well. I haven’t felt this uncomfortable after watching a film since Eden Lake.
The Woman is the story of a seemingly charming business man, Chris Cleek, and his lovely family. Belle, his wife, wears floral skirts and bakes cookies. Peggy, the eldest daughter is demure and polite, Brian the only son is dedicated and obedient, and the youngest daughter – known only as Darlin’ – is a typical, feisty little girl.
But of course, if you scratch the surface of this idyllic veneer, something nasty comes crawling out. We can already see the cracks on the surface of this seemingly perfect family: Belle seems uncomfortably subservient to her husband, Peggy is insular and seemingly unwell, Brian is a bully – particularly of young women. Despite this Chris appears blissfully happy at the heart of his family – far too happy. He is an archetype – an extreme exaggeration of the American-Bible-Belt ideal family-man. He is totally autonomous, the head of his household, totally in control of his family, with greater independence and power imparted by the weaponry he owns. In short, Chris is the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the peculiarly American ideal of the autonomous (and armed) citizen.
Chris, this embodiment of the masculine ideal, discovers a wild woman in the woods near his home. He captures her and hauls her back to the ranch where he then insists his family help him in secretly civilising and saving this abomination.
But The Woman ain’t no Eliza Dolittle. Her first act when she’s strung up in the cellar is to bite off one of Chris’ fingers. She’s dangerous, capable of killing wild creatures with nothing but a knife, she’s strong, merciless and unrelentingly independent.
The plot, such as it is, is the slow unveiling of the depth Chris’ depravity. He is violent to his wife, he – and possibly his son – have been raping the eldest child, Peggy. We witness his deepening obsession with The Woman, humiliated, tortured and – once she is forced into a kind of resentful docility – raped by Chris and assaulted and viciously tortured by Brian. At school Peggy’s depressed mood has not gone unnoticed and her teacher Miss Ratton is determined to confront the girls parents as she is clearly pregnant.
This film contains a LOT of symbolism – and absolutely none of it subtle. What plays out in this vein is not so much a subtext as an INYOURFACEtext. And clearly – as the story of one man’s tyrannous abuse of his women – some of that subtext is going to be feminist in nature. Or is it?
From the moment I finished watching this film I KNEW it was written and directed by a man. The reason for this is simple: the film makers are so utterly in love with The Woman, and the notion of her as some kind of wild-warrior, an Amazon Queen for the west coast – a post-modern, nihilist, avenging angel – is totally and utterly masculine. No offence to my fellow ladies – but it is.
This is no more a feminist movie than I Spit on Your Grave. And the thing these two movies have in common is that they are exploitation movies, they toy with the idea of female emancipation through violent retribution. Extreme violence towards women is used as entertainment and – in The Woman – with a considerable undertone of dark humour.
There is absolutely nothing subtle about this film and very little that really encourages you to think – aside for some symbolism which is so deeply entrenched in meaning and possible meaning that it’s hard to know where to start. Just take for example the moment when The Woman bites off Chris’ finger: it is his wedding finger and she proceeds to spit his wedding band onto the floor. Is this a comment on marriage? An allusion manner in which this woman rejects social norms? A reflection of Chris’ abuse of his position as husband and father? All of the above?
In his attempts to civilise The Woman it is clear that what really appeals to Chris is the possibility of subjugating her. Belle is devastated by her husband’s behaviour but it seems that she only really comes to the conclusion that she has to leave him because he is having sex with Woman. Despite her protestations of concern for the Woman – whom she insists is a human being after all l- it is strongly implied that her anguish really comes from jealousy. She has tolerated everything that Chris has done: beating her, raping their daughter and warping their son – but she only finds her anger when he slights her in this way. For her, this is the abuse that she cannot tolerate.
There is something disturbingly realistic about the way in which Peggy stares glassy eyed and uncomprehending at her mother – as though hoping she might break from her brittle stupor at any moment. When will she be pushed too far? We hear so often from abused children that their mother simply refused to acknowledge what was happening under her own roof, it is too horrific to comprehend and we sense that there are years of abuse which reinforce her conditioning and make her complicit.
But Belle has her moment. She could have freed herself and her children from Chris – she knows that if she knocks him unconscious and frees the Woman she will kill him. She lets the moment pass, as she has – presumably – let so many other moments pass. And so Belle is complicit in her husband’s abuse, even though she is also subjected to it.
The film escalates to the moment when Belle tries to leave Chris and he punches her so hard she is left unconscious on the floor. Then Peggy’s teacher arrives intending to inform her parent’s that the girl is pregnant. Chris lashes out at the teacher and she is then fed to the monstrosity in the woodshed. Oh yes, the something nasty in the woodshed. Chris and Belle’s disfigured child has been left to live with the dogs and has developed some cannibalistic tendencies. Surely at this point we must lose any sympathy for Belle?
But more importantly this is the point at which this film loses credibility, the last 15 minutes are just silly. The moment when The Woman kills Belle is shocking and thought provoking but this is the last moment where anything of any substance occurs. The Woman allows those who have helped her to live. But those who have harmed her – Chris, Brian and Belle – must die. And horribly. Belle’s face is chewed off, Brian is cut in half and Chris’ heart is torn from his chest and fed to his anophthalmic daughter.
The end of the film sees The Woman introducing Peggy, Darlin’ and the unnamed sister to a life of cannibalism as they head off into the wilderness. The unnamed girl is little more than a dog to the woman – an extremely unpleasant piece of humour.
I am going to be generous and assume that this film actually has some point behind it and that it isn’t just the exploitation shocker it seems. Chris is the civilised man who has been raised with all the opportunities and advantages society can provide and the Woman is his counterpoint – raised with nothing, in the harsh uncaring environment she has come to be a cannibal who lives by a simple code. She will kill any who harm her. She is not an animal, as she has a sense of injustice and a desire for revenge. Chris has no reason – that we know of – to be the monster. The Woman has every reason to be a monster but she is ultimately amoral, acting on instinct in a cruel environment.
Peggy comes closest to being a heroine in this film. She alone shows some compassion and courage. Belle is judged by the film to be worthy of death, Brian – groomed to be a monster by his father – is judged similarly. Is this fair? Belle’s her inaction makes her complicit. Brian is moulded by his father but there is no compassion for him, he is presented as a monster and nothing more. Neither is shown any mercy or provided any depth of character. Is their treatment right or wrong? Were they in control of their own lives? How far can they be considered accountable?
Ultimately the film for me was a subversion of the traditional ideals of feminine and masculine values in America. Strangely, perhaps refreshingly, religion was left completely out of the equation. But is that enough to justify a film that is so controversial, that delves – in such a brutal manner – into themes (such as abuse, kidnapping and incest) that seem so painfully present in society today? I am happy with controversy if it is for a reason but this film is treading a very fine line between unsavoury exploitation and thought-provoking horror. It is a ham-fisted offering, the symbolism is so luminous it blinds the viewer. This is a low-brow movie, sorry to sound like a snob – but it is – and it barely drags itself into acceptability.
It isn’t as graphic or as visceral as it may sound, but what makes this film so nasty (for me at least) is the underpinning humour and the attempts at making it seem slick and cool. This is what feels so uncomfortable and is what indicates most strongly that this film doesn’t really have a point to make. The Woman is in love with its eponymous antiheroine – and this fixation is almost more disturbing than Chris’ perverted obsession. It delights in a nihilistic daydream of feminine violence and a descent into a feminist dystopian-tribalism. Which is all a bit pretentious really – and a rather crap.
Watch it if you really think you have the stomach for it – at best you may find it thought provoking, at worst you will find it pretentious and ham-fisted.