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Fangrrls on Film: The Woman

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Mar 15, 2019

Film criticism is a very dude-heavy industry. According to a 2016 study by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University, men account for 73% of the top critics on Rotten Tomatoes, resulting in men often shaping the narrative of what makes a "good" film or a "bad" film — what's worth seeing and what's not. And even the most well-meaning, wokest of men wouldn't necessarily catch the microaggressions or tropes that tend to define whole genres. 

So, as our answer to years of male critics driving and basically shaping the movie industry with their opinions, FANGRRLS on Film re-reviews films from a fangrrl perspective.

Following its world premiere at Sundance in 2011, Lucky McKee's The Woman became instantly infamous. Its premise was provocative: a family man captures a feral woman, and through severe means — which includes torture, violence, and rape — he aims to make her into a productive member of society.

Critics were divided. Some viewed the film as a dark feminist satire, others as misogynistic trash that leans into the worst of the horror genre's impulses. Scenes of graphic violence and sexual assault spurred outraged reactions from audience members. One woman reportedly passed out in shock while one man went viral for declaring, "This is not art, this is bullsh*t, this is degradation to women…The film oughta be confiscated, burned. There's no value in showing this to anyone!”

For some horror fans, this controversy was like catnip. They couldn't wait to see McKee's Woman so they could see if it lived up to its sickening hype. For me, all this talk was a turnoff. I've been a horror fan since my parents made the mistake of letting me see Gremlins way too young. As such, I accept misogyny as a problematic but deeply embedded element of this genre I love. Horror filmmakers relish having a woman be chased, tortured, then murdered by an array of madmen. And that I've grown used to, for better or worse. But when The Woman was described to me as a movie where a man rapes a woman to "civilize" her, I tapped out. It sounded like torture porn, a subgenre I can stomach, but don't want to. It's not my jam. So, I never sought out The Woman. That is until I heard about its direct sequel, Darlin'.

Making its world premiere at SXSW this weekend, Darlin' will pick up The Woman's story with a new chapter. But this time, McKee and his co-writer Jack Ketchum, handed the reigns over to Pollyanna McIntosh, who played the titular woman in the notorious first film. I had forgotten all about the divisive horror movie that caused such a stir so eight years ago. But now, I had fresh reason to seek it out, so I could see for myself: Is it feminist or misogynistic? Is it a treasure or trash? And is it really as gruesome as everyone says?

The Woman was not what I was expecting. For one thing, while there are onscreen depictions of abuse and rape, they aren't nearly at the level of depravity I expected from all the hoopla out of Sundance. I wouldn't qualify it as torture porn, as it doesn't revel in revealing the abuse against its eponymous victim. Things do get gory, especially in a blood-splattered finale, but the many of the sequences of torture keep the impact of weapons off-screen, focusing instead on the women in the movie's reaction to these acts.  Which brings me to my other great surprise: The Woman is unquestionably feminist, calling out patriarchal bullshit with an uncompromising heroine who refuses to play by The Man's rules.

There is misogyny in the film, almost all of it displayed by family man Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), who seems chipper enough until a woman crosses him. Even when he's beaming brightly, his wife Belle (Angela Bettis, star of another McKee film, May) and teen daughter Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter) walk on eggshells around him, and we soon learn why. Challenging him can lead to a hard slap across the face or much much worse. So when Chris drags home a wild woman from the woods and chains her up in the family's storm cellar, Belle and Peg look panicked and helpless. McKee connects these the wife, the daughter, and the woman through visual cues and eye contact. They are all pale with dark hair, so Chris has a type. Again and again, when he "disciplines" the woman, McKee doesn't focus on this creep's pleasure in her torment but on the reactions of the women, regarding each other in this horrid moment. It's them with whom the audience is to connect, not the misogynist who treats them like playthings. 

There will be rape, nudity, and sexual torture. But none of this is done to titillate the audience. When Chris's cruel son Brian (Zach Rand) takes a pair of pliers to the woman's nipples, the camera doesn't display this act of violence for us to relish or be repulsed by. Instead, it takes the point of view of this bound victim, the pliers plunging clumsily and relentlessly toward us; we are under attack with her. When the results of Brian's assault are shown, it's within the context of Peg's repulsed reaction. We are urged to sneer in disgust just as we do when Chris and his son spit out gendered insults like "whiny bitch" and "slut-whore."

Chris's attacks on the woman are likewise atrocious and merciless, yet there's a deeply dark sense of humor to these scenes. Perhaps stunned Sundance audiences read this levity as mocking of the woman's plight and pain. But the choice of music made me think McKee was mocking the toxic masculinity that fuels Chris to think he's entitled to his every desire, no matter how twisted. Male-sung rock jams about love are Chris's recurring soundtrack. When he first spots the woman bathing in a stream, a song blares, "I know I got to make you mine!" He's a peeping tom spying on the unaware woman in the nude. But there's no sexy posing, no sultry pouting. She's not on display for him or the camera; she's just a creature in a simple routine of hygiene. Yet the music screams of Chris's ludicrous lust, screaming, "Girl I know I want to date you, love and marry and then hate you." To Chris, this is the first act of a love story where he will wear down the woman into loving him. And to love him means to be his simpering subject.

Chris is the king of his castle, ruling over his family with an iron fist that's reduced his wife and oldest daughter into trembling ghosts of their former selves. Yet his masculinity is so fragile that anytime it's challenged — be it by his wife questioning his decision to abduct a feral woman, a female teacher making a house call about his daughter's welfare, or the woman biting off his probing finger — he responds with vicious violence. Chris thinks his power makes him invincible and superior. And why wouldn't he? He lives in a patriarchal society that tells men they will be husbands and fathers and therefore the heads of their households, no matter their lack of virtues or sense. But the woman lives outside of society.

Brian may have dragged her onto his turf, but binding her limbs, force-feeding her oatmeal, dressing her like "one of those sister wives," raping her, and trying to subjugate her like he has the women in his household will not change who she is. She was raised in a wild zone outside of this world of man. She has her own norms, language, and values. Presumably, she has a name, just not one that will be shared with this band of brutes who've abducted her. Even as she is slicked in mud and blood, there's a defiant stare and a grime-toothed grimace that makes her a grisly feminist fantasy. She is the gruesome vengeance the patriarchy is owed for their intrusions, penetrations, and dehumanization of women. And her payback will be one of blood, face-biting, and breath-taking violence against all who dared to oppress her.

As a film, The Woman is a bit of a mess, with stilted performances, clunky characterizations, and a rough-and-tumble third act that's as almost as befuddling as it is shocking. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see there's much more to it than its bad reputation. This into not a crass celebration of misogyny and torture porn. The Woman is a yowling war cry against toxic masculinity. Sly humor ghoulishly undercuts its macho man and his self-importance. But the violent impact of his toxic masculinity is never a joke, its graveness captured by the gore and the fraught close-ups of the harrowed heroines. Then at this wild film's center is McIntosh, a force of nature, savage, resilient, and captivating. Her only dialogue is a tongue we can't follow yet the intention is always as clear as her hard, unblinking stare. When she marches away in the film's final shot, leaving the family's farm and their hypocritical society behind, we are tempted to follow her back to the woods. Back to the wild zone. 

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