Let me be very, VERY clear: The Woman features brutal, unflinching violence and disturbing — even traumatic and triggering — themes. This is not a film for everyone. It’s hardly for anyone. But it struck a chord in me — hit it so hard and so relentlessly that I spent the second and third act rocking back and forth on the couch trying (and failing) to suppress my cries of second-hand anguish.
[note: I’m imbedding the trailer, but it edges closer to spoiling The Woman than my review does.]
In the first few minutes of The Woman, we see a feral woman striding surely through the woods, clad in rags and streaked with mud. She is powerful and fierce, commanding even the wolves. Cut to a jolting contrast: a neighborhood barbeque where we meet the Cleek family: mom Belle (Angela Bettis, the riveting star of director Lucky McKee’s May and Sick Girl) with her tight smile and flashing eyes, sulky daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter, Premium Rush), quietly obedient son Brian (Zach Rand), and twinkly little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), and the chipper, chirpy, casually controlling dad, Chris (Sean Bridgers, “Deadwood”). It’s inevitable that these two scenes will collide, and also inevitable what will happen when they do: the patriarch captures the wild woman and spends his free time trying to subdue her. And in this simple, brutal story, Lucky McKee taps into and articulates an anguish and an anger that lurk within me — and maybe within you.
The power of The Woman comes from its ability to surprise us even as it plays out the story that we know is coming, the story that we dread. McKee gives that dread its due, never turning from the stark horror of her subjugation. The sexual violence — and of course there is sexual violence, though smug, self-satisfied, self-congratulatory Chris takes his time building up to it, telling himself that he’s civilizing his charge, not imprisoning her— is not titillating or stirring, never framed for the audience’s scandalized pleasure. This is rape, plainly presented. It’s stomach-turning.
The Woman showcases McKee’s perfect grasp of sexualized horror tropes and reclaims them with flawless ironic aplomb, stirring up fury and horror and grief and empathy instead of fear and perverse thrills*. Some critics complained that The Woman is outrageous, dehumanizing, sickening. And those complaints are right, in a very limited, obtuse way: it is an outrage. Abuse and rape — and even worse, the way our culture conspires to shame victims of abuse and rape — are dehumanizing. The sheer beaming smugness of an abusive patriarch secure in his role is sickening. It’s not the movie that makes them so.
This viciously, mercilessly graphic film expresses something I’ve long felt in my heart: that misogynists, and those who support misogyny by standing silently by, aren’t just denying women’s abilities or intelligence or rights: they are denying our very humanity. They are arrogating the mantle of full humanity to themselves and denying it to me and to other women based purely on anatomy.
Before the film started, your editor remarked “Angela Bettis is in this! You like her! … but she isn’t The Woman.” Not very many minutes in, I wondered “… isn’t she?” I think she is. I think daughter Peggy is The Woman, as well. I think that — to a certain, all-too-common class of misogynist — I am. Misogynists aren’t just denying us some rights, they are dehumanizing me — and if you’re a woman, they’re dehumanizing you, too. And that’s terrifying. Once a person persuades themselves that you are less than fully human, they can allow themselves to do anything to you.
*Hey, I’m not knocking perverse thrills. There are a lot of movies and a lot of movie-watchers, and there’s a place for almost everything. But seeing an on-screen rape presented uncomplicatedly as a rape was weirdly, jarringly reassuring to me: a reminder that, despite our culture’s reliance on rape-as-drama or rape-as-redemption or rape-as-plot-catalyst, the actual act is just a brutal, painful act of personal terrorizing.