The Woman gained a reputation of outrage and controversy immediately upon its premiere at the 2011 Sundance Festival. It is a film where Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum, by selectively withholding information and producing abrupt twists out of left field, are constantly leaving an audience in a state of bewilderment. From the opening moments where Sean Bridgers goes hunting in the woods, encounters The Woman, comes back to the family and gets them to rearrange the garden shed without saying why, then returns to recapture The Woman, you wonder where on Earth the film is going. Things get even more WTF when Bridgers goes out to tend to The Woman and she, allowing him to think she is unconscious, bites off his ring finger, swallows the finger and spits the ring back at him, whereupon he responds by beating her with his fist while remonstrating her with black regard: Thats not civilised.
On one level, it is as though Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum are inverting a film like Deliverance (1972) wherein a group of city slickers travel into the wilds and are attacked and brutalised by hillbillies who live far from civilised values. Here this is turned on its head and it is the backwoods person who is an unworldwise innocent while the city people who set out to civilise them are shown as those who are harbouring a barbarism. On another level, the film is digging into conservative patriarchal family values. One of the films first Out There moments comes when Angela Bettis cautiously enquires of Sean Bridgers Are you sure we should be doing this? [regarding keeping The Woman a prisoner] only for him to hit her in the face and then cheerfully get into bed as though nothing had happened. There are even digs at the Recession with Sean Bridgers secretary (Lauren Schroeder) asking him In this economy, are you sure youre not over-extending? [regarding buying a property] to which he smilingly replies with a black regard that we just know is going to come back and bite him: Have you ever known me to let things get out of hand, Dorothy?
You expect The Woman to emerge as something like The Wild Child (1969) about how a standard family set out to civilise someone they discover living in the wilds. On the other hand, Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum have anything but standard moral sympathies in mind and are constantly subverting expectations. The film starts to go into completely off the radar territory after the point when Sean Bridgers gets up in the middle of the night and sneaks out into the shed to have sex with the bound Pollyanna McIntosh. [PLOT SPOILERS]. Things get increasingly more disturbed as son Zach Rand peeps in on what is happening and then the next day sneaks into the shed after school to visit Pollyanna McIntosh, although it is not entirely clear what he is doing we get the initial impression that he is attacking and cutting her with a tool before he is found by sister Lauren Ashley Carter. Sean Bridgers returns home and is confronted by wife Angela Bettis expressing shock and outrage over finding Zach Rand sexually molesting The Woman, only for him to shrug it off, dismissing her claims as alleged and asking: Is this true, son? and then incredibly blithely dismissing it So, no-one was hurt. Things become even more disturbed as Angela Bettis stands up to Bridgers, accusing him of excusing rape, only for him to beat her to the ground unconscious and shrugging it off to the others shell be fine. With abrupt whiplash tension, just as we are reeling from this, schoolteacher Carlee Baker turns up at the door, asking to sit down with the family (as all the while Angela Bettis sits unconscious at the kitchen table, which Sean Bridgers dismisses as her having a power nap). This segues into the intensely uncomfortable scene where Carlee Baker tries to explain that she believes Lauren Ashley Carters behaviour is symptomatic of her being pregnant, only for Sean Bridgers to turn on her, accusing her of calling him a liar after he has said that Carter has no boyfriend or if is she implying this is due to incest, before beating Baker out and dragging her away.
[PLOT SPOILERS CONTINUE] This leads to the disturbing finale of the film (the sections that had most audiences up in arms). Here Carlee Baker is dragged out to the barn and thrown in with the dogs who promptly attack and tear her to pieces. We then discover that the secret in the dog pen is another woman being kept prisoner there, having been blinded and reduced to living like an animal crawling on all fours. Lauren Ashley Carter lets The Woman loose, only for her to attack Angela Bettis and bite her face off, then tear Sean Bridgers heart out and start eating it in front of his dying face. In the haunting final image, The Woman sets off into the wild again, taking with her the blinded animal woman from the dog pen, the youngest child (Shyla Molhusen) and inviting Lauren Ashley Carter to come too, which she seems to start doing as the film fades out.
Lucky McKee and Jack Ketchum never entirely make it clear what they are trying to say with The Woman. There were the initial kneejerk reactions of it being a misogynist film, although I entirely disagree with this the film depicts the way men abuse women, although it can never be said that these actions are shown in a salutary light, rather in terms of horror. The film is less like an advocacy of such than one that takes the lid off how such brutality and wife-beating exists in an American family. Perhaps the very lack of the film standing back to make moral messages about this is something that has unnerved people. Even when it comes to the end, the film leaves a good number of questions unanswered like how The Woman came to be out there alone in the woods not having encountered civilisation before despite not living far from it and more importantly who the blinded woman kept a prisoner in the pen with the dogs is. There is not even any explanation of whether Lauren Ashley Carter was pregnant or not, or how she came to be and whether it was a case of incest.
Lucky McKee and the cast do a superb job in depicting a family who are off-centre and falling apart, even though we are not entirely sure why. These things are communicated via a series of superbly well-drawn characters and subtle interactions. The little-known Sean Bridgers is at the centre of the show and gives a deceptively smiling and brutal performance expect to see more of him soon. Lucky McKee gave Angela Bettis the starring role in May and propelled her from there to a growing name. Here she plays at watery and almost entirely introverted. The performances of the two principal children, Lauren Ashley Carter and Zach Rand, are also excellent. Of course, the one person who imprints them self on almost every frame of the film is Scottish actress Pollyanna McIntosh who gives a performance that almost entirely exists in terms of fierce poses, glares and a raw animal-like intensity that seems to claw its way out of the screen at you.