There’s something off about the Cleek clan. Husband Chris (Sean Bridgers), wife Belle (Angela Bettis), and their three kids get along well enough in public and at home, but they tend to be a bit indifferent to acts of cruelty, and a bit subservient to the patriarch’s whims.
Perhaps this explains why Chris’ capture of a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) from the nearby woods strikes them more as a curious interruption in routine rather than a cause to call the cops. This nameless prisoner, nigh crucified in the cellar, is the latest demonstration of Chris’ misogynistic behavior, not to mention a handy embodiment of the pent-up frustrations of the Cleek women, and you can bet that this act of arrogance will beget rightful retaliation in the end.
Until then, though, the characters of The Woman and its audience alike will have to endure much misery and a ham-fisted illustration of gender dynamics, offered up as an especially cockeyed comedy of manners by director/co-writer Lucky McKee and novelist/co-writer Jack Ketchum. His third tale to date of a peculiar young woman violently finding her role in the world -- fourth, if we’re counting his Masters of Horror episode -- the filmmaker has demonstrated a distinct feminist streak throughout his work, but while May offered up a Gothic sense of romance and relationships and The Woods skewed toward more classical interpretations of the supernatural, The Woman is a languid, obvious thing that falls more in line with his aforementioned TV effort.
The constant dissolves and fades, combined with a soundtrack heavy on strumming guitars, suggests that McKee’s aiming for some sort of angsty domestic drama; the stomach-churning violence and sexual assaults carry all the weight of an uncompromising, modern-day exploitation flick (rather than a pale imitation of one); and yet Chris’ interactions with his family, colleagues, and captive are clearly the stuff of off-kilter satire, like Martyrs transplanted to white-picket-fence America. The end result isn’t sharp enough to be funny, or surprising enough to be tense -- rape and abuse and revenge come like clockwork -- and once The Woman takes a literal bite out of the hand that feeds her early on, it becomes apparent that subtlety and reality are not going to factor in here.
The performers certainly don’t shy away from the challenge. Reprising her role from 2009’s film adaptation of Ketchum’s Offspring (itself a sequel to his novel, Off Season -- a right nasty read, that one), McIntosh is suitably untamed and works wonders in a mostly mute role as hunter-turned-prey-turned-catalyst. As her foil, Bridgers is a perfectly slimy piece of work, with a phony smile and firm tone to his voice, dishing out enough viable arrogance to sell us on these unlikely circumstances. A McKee standby, Bettis plays Belle as both placated and frustrated, and it’s not hard to understand why she wouldn’t take the kids and leave; they hardly know any better.
However, the commendable ensemble work is in service of a hollow provocation, one akin to the arbitrary button-pushing of a film like David Mamet’s Oleanna and less confident in style than either of McKee’s earlier features. The Woman is keen on turning the tables between victims, but when the reckoning finally comes, the lack of escalating tension dilutes its ultimate impact.