The Woman arrives as a welcome antidote to one of the most pernicious diseases of our times, an epidemic of glossy remakes that have gutted and gelded the grand tradition of relentlessly grungy ‘70s horror classics like The Last House on the Left. Scripted by novelist Jack Ketchum and director Lucky McKee, The Woman is a slow-burning incendiary device, a brutal satire on the sanctity of the nuclear family and its conservative “values” that, like the majority of Ketchum’s work, seems to delight in burrowing down to the dark discontents that gnaw away at what nowadays passes for civilization. A sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Offspring, McKee’s film picks up with its title character (Pollyanna McIntosh), the sole survivor of the earlier film’s cannibal clan, eking out an existence in the Maine woods like some unspoiled noble savage. The hallucinatory opening sequence plays like an unholy marriage between Antichrist and Apocalypse Now, down to the hand-scrawled title and synth-heavy score squalling and droning away on the soundtrack. Shot in dreamy slow motion, the Woman’s actions, loping with knife in hand through densely knotted underbrush, crawling into a cavernous lair to tussle with its lupine occupant, are played and replayed in multiple superimpositions, contributing to a fractured, febrile feel that’s only heightened by a surreal dream involving a swaddling infant and a she-wolf.
At which point The Woman abruptly shifts in tone and location. An idyllic summer barbecue and pool party introduces the members of the Cleek family, each wrapped up in their separate pursuits, indicative from the start that this clan lacks cohesion, its solidarity entirely fictive. Soon enough, the postcard-pretty surfaces give way, revealing deep chasms of tension and resentment. Chipmunk-cheeked patriarch Chris (Sean Bridgers) enjoys hectoring tightly wound wife Belle (McKee regular Angela Bettis) a little too much. Bridgers’s clipped delivery evokes The Shining‘s Jack Torrance, mixing derisive sarcasm with ice-cold contempt. Belle seeks solace in a Stepford Wives adherence to outward appearances, zombie-shuffling along grocery store aisles and fussily baking cookies. (If you detect a sly nod to the Woman’s digit-devouring predilections in the scene where the Cleek kids delight in chopping up and chomping their gingerbread men, you just might be onto something.) Daughter Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter), a Wednesday Addams for the Twilight generation first seen poolside reading John D. McDonald’s The Price of Murder, harbors a scandalous secret under her baggy clothes: a budding baby bump. Compulsive hoop-dreamer Brian (Zach Rand), a sociopath on training wheels, soon reveals his cruel streak when he sticks gum in the brush of a girl who’s beaten him in a free-throw contest, all the better to helpfully yank her hair out by the roots. And then there’s little Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen), the youngest, her untrammeled innocence up for grabs in the film’s blood-spattered endgame.
When huntsman Chris rides his ATV into the woods one fine morning, he spies the Woman washing herself in the river. Chris disguises his lust at first sight, given vent in a hilarious montage melding prurient glimpses of the Woman’s nakedness to a power-pop love song, by hatching a scheme to capture and rehabilitate the feral woman. Not one to fly solo, he enlists the whole family, pressing them into servitude cleaning out the fruit cellar, making it comfy for their new guest, if by comfortable you mean dangling by the arms from a block-and-tackle. The Woman becomes a reclamation project of sorts for Chris, the recipient of an extreme makeover, Cleek Edition, as he imposes his own warped notion of civilized values on his captive, including rudimentary etiquette lessons like learning to croak a plaintive “please…” in exchange for her gruel. As Chris opines, “We can’t have people wandering around the woods, thinking they’re animals. It isn’t right.”
McKee directs with assured simplicity, scoring points with his lucid shot compositions, like a startling two shot that links mother and daughter, calling to mind the split-screen hijinx of peak-period Brian De Palma, just as an extended 360-degree pan near film’s end, with the camera swirling deliriously around Chris and Peg, plays as a perverse nod to similar emotional crescendos in Carrie and Body Double. Sean Spillane’s superb, protean soundtrack, straddling styles with chameleon-like adroitness, often stands in ironic counterpoint to events on screen. Ketchum and McKee dispense revelations and plot twists in canny dosages, allowing the viewer to connect most of the dots, a suggestive approach that works to maintain active involvement, rather than jolting the audience into passive capitulation.
That is, until an explosive finale, triggered by young Peg’s home situation draws the attention of her overly solicitous geometry teacher (Carlee Baker), whose good intentions prompt an ill-conceived visit to chez Cleek. Seems Chris has more to hide than his daughter’s pregnancy. There’s the little matter of a hitherto unseen family member who’s landed in the doghouse for an extended stay. Regardless of how you happen to feel about its outrageously graphic gore, the finale suffers by comparison for its too-pat “return of the repressed” resolution, meting out morally tidy eye-for-an-eye punishments. In the end, a radically realigned family unit emerges from the carnage, one that puts the blood back into blood relations.