I wrote earlier this year about the controversy swirling around Lucky McKee’s film The Woman. After a midnight showing at Sundance last January, one angry man in the audience stood up and denounced the film as a “disgusting movie” that “degrades women.” Given McKee’s nuanced treatment of gender issues in his previous films May and The Woods, I suspected that this outraged critic had completely missed the point.
Now I’ve finally gotten to see the film and, yep, he did. The Woman isn’t a misogynist film; it’s a film about misogyny. The Woman revolves around a cheerful , self-satisfied and and superficially charming country lawyer who captures a ferocious feral woman he spots on a hunting trip and chains her in the cellar in what he perversely sees as an attempt to “civilize” her. A patriarchal king of his castle, he introduces her to the rest of the family and assigns them all chores relating to her upkeep.
I don’t really want to give away much more than this; suffice it to say that as the film progresses we learn just how much of an odious psychopath this “family man” really is. But while the film offers a savage critique of his cruelty, and his misogyny, none of the women in the film are unambiguously noble victims, and when they begin to fight back the story is no simple tale of feminist empowerment. It’s a bit more subtle and unsettling than that.
While less overtly violent than, say, your typical Saw film, The Woman is a film that’s often, and by design, hard to take. Yes, there are some grisly deaths, but this isn’t a film that glories in gore for gore’s sake; it’s really about cruelty and complicity and feeling trapped, the ways in which fucked-up families can ensnare even outsiders in their toxic dynamics.
Naturally, the film has drawn sharply mixed reactions from critics. It got a glowing review from Andy Webster in the New York Times, who described the cast as “remarkable” and praised the way McKee invests the film’s “a powerful parable with an abundance of closely observed details.” Marc Holcomb of the Village Voice, meanwhile, dismissed it as “torture porn for people who’d never admit to liking torture porn.” (He also noted sardonically that the feral woman is “apparently tame enough to shave her armpits.” And her legs too, I might add; under the caked-on-grime, she’s what the PUAs would probably rate a HB10. )
But the strangest review I’ve seen so far is one by Rene Rodriguez in the Miami Herald, who perversely describes the film as, er, fun. While acknowledging the film’s feminist themes, she dismisses them as mere window-dressing:
[C]ome on: You want a feminist movie, go rent Norma Rae. The Woman is the sort of horror picture designed to make you throw popcorn at the screen, groan with disgust and shriek out loud when McKee springs a shock on you. … Good times.
Really? Were you throwing popcorn at the screen during Antichrist too?
Of course, it doesn’t exactly help – as Rodriguez and a couple of other reviewers have noted – that the film’s publicists sent out the DVD screener with a barf bag “just in case.” The Woman deserves better than that.
EDITED TO ADD: Regular Man Boobz commenters might want to check out this thread on the IMDb forums, in which a (somewhat oversimplified) discussion of the feminist themes in the film is quickly derailed by a dude who thinks it laughable that a mere woman could possibly overpower the family patriarch:
I feel sorry for you and any other woman who truly believes that they can physically overpower a man.
You know, if women are just as physically capable as men, I’d love to start my own inter-gender boxing league. Sign me up, baby! Equality at its finest.
And the trailer: