Friday 30 April 2021

The Question in Bodies #34: The Woman (2011)

Spoilers galore for a movie that contains literally
everything that is possibly likely to ruin the day of anyone sensitive to, well, you know. You have been warned.)

The second time I watched The Woman, I had to take a break twenty minutes from the end. I knew what was coming. It was too much. To say this is a hard film to watch is one of the most basic and obvious things to say about it. But it has that genuinely unusual distinction of being harder to watch on subsequent viewings, because it is one of those films where knowing what is to come makes things that much harder to bear.

Somewhere in small town USA, we meet Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers), a lawyer and family man. While out hunting in the woods, he comes across a feral woman (Pollyanna McIntosh). He captures her, takes her home, and chains her up in his basement, where he shows his prize to his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and his children Peg (Lauren Ashley Carter), Brian (Zach Rand) and Darlin’ (five-year-old Shyla Molhusen). Chris explains that their new project is to civilise their animalistic captive.

While Chris and his clan are unaware of who the Woman is, fans of indie horror and readers of the work of Jack Ketchum might have recognised her as the last survivor of the band of cannibals featured in Ketchum’s novels Off Season and Offspring, and Andrew van den Houten’s 2009 film adaptation of the latter, in which McIntosh plays the same character. McIntosh herself wrote and directed a third film, Darlin’, which followed in 2019 and which revisits many of the themes and some of the characters from The Woman.

The cannibals in Ketchum’s original stories are based on the classic folk legend of the ”lost colony gone feral” and are of course white. There is a long tradition in horror narratives of picking up the thread of white people so unable to cope with the wilds that they regress to the sort of amoral savagery that only the formerly “civilised” really ever descend to. You can see this in The Hills Have Eyes, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Jug Face (also starring Carter and Bridgers) and particularly in “Jersey Devil”, a very early episode of The X-Files that draws from the same legend.

All of this is useful context but it doesn’t actually matter as much as you think it might: McKee and Ketchum, who co-wrote the script, give you everything you really need to know in this movie. Although this film picks up the Woman’s story soon after Offspring ends, The Woman (in the sense of both film and character) stands alone.

In fact, although Offspring is an entirely OK movie (if bloody movies about cannibals are your bag), I feel it’s sort of better not having seen it before The Woman, because that lonely figure, trussed up, carried home, and chained up in the basement, becomes another part of the film’s tremendous process of giving you enough to know exactly what is going on, if only you’ll pay attention.

Chris Cleek as presented in the film is exactly the sort of upstanding, well-known guy who turns out to be a wife beater, or a rapist, or a child abuser, or a paedophile, or a murderer (or, as is the case with Chris, all of those things), and everyone acts with astonishment when the truth comes out because they never knew. And they never knew because they weren’t paying attention. They were making allowances. They were refusing to join the dots. They were avoiding seeing things that they should have seen. They were wordlessly stepping over the missing stair. The stomach-churning genius of The Woman is that it’s exactly a cinematic representation of that social phenomenon where men (and it's usually men) get away with terrible crimes because people refuse to see what is going on. 

Chris is clearly a creature of breathtaking evil from the very first moment you see him first come on screen. You see Belle’s terror of him. You see his pride in Brian, a boy who casually watches a little girl being picked on by a bunch of bigger, meaner kids as if it is the most normal thing in the world, who puts bubblegum in a girl’s hairbrush at school for the simple reason she’s better at shooting hoops than he is. And you see the consuming physical and emotional misery of Peg, which is clearly more than the simple “teenage phase” everyone thinks it is. You see the odd way the family won’t talk about the dog house, the oddly incorrect number of children Chris talks about having. It is all there from the beginning, and plainly, if only you will see it. And you might not.

If this doesn’t seem plausible, consider how many people found ways in 2020 and 2021 to excuse a nine minute video of a self proclaimed white supremacist in a police uniform obviously and slowly murdering a man with clear intention and deliberate cruelty as somehow an accident and a stitch-up. If these things do not pose us a direct danger, we do our level best not to see them, in the face of all the evidence in the world. This happens. 

Consider: where did Chris Cleek get a set of manacles and chains suitable for a human? Why does a lawyer need manacles? If we are not asking this question, it is because we have made the unconscious decision not to. At the end of the film, when we find out what – who – is in the dog shed it becomes apparent: of course he’s done this before. And to his own blood. And that’s only a shock development if you haven’t been attending to who he is.

It is precisely the people who are most in peril from these things who see them the most clearly. Of course it would be a queer woman – Peg’s teacher, Miss Raton (Carlee Baker) – who would immediately, just by the expedient of using her eyes, divine that Peg is pregnant. But she isn’t privileged with the same information as the movie’s audience. She doesn’t know Peg’s parents, she hasn’t seen the hunted look in Belle’s eyes or the rapist-in-training that Brian is being brought up to be, and she hasn’t seen the dog shed. And Miss Raton, being good, assumes that other people are good by default, and hence does not know the terrible danger that doing her job will bring to Peg and the terrible fate that will be visited on her. Miss Raton assumes that Chris will be a functional parent who loves his daughter, because it is the default in her world that people are good. And Miss Raton doesn’t glean who the father of Peg’s unborn child is until it is far, far too late. She makes things worse, and suffers and dies horribly and pointlessly, because she is good.

Chris holds women in contempt. He treats them as vessels for his desire, subjects for his wrath. Belle exists in a constant state of terror. She is at Chris’s beck and call, even rolling his cigarettes for him. Because Belle is afraid, she is complicit. Over and over again, the feral woman in her captivity exchanges looks with the other women, a desperate, silent plea for solidarity, but Belle doesn’t just fail to help, she actually betrays the Woman, and helps Chris to foil a possible escape. She defers her own abuse by allowing the abuse of others, a story all too common. Belle can’t help anyone. When she finally snaps and tells Chris she’s leaving it’s not because of what Chris did to Peg, it’s because it’s apparent what he’s made Brian into. She knows full well that she can’t appeal to Chris’s better nature, because he is not furnished with one. 

At any rate, it’s too late.

Chris’s victims keep saying, “You can’t do this,” to him. And of course he can, because he’s a white, straight man with power and financial security, and he’s exactly the sort of man who can and will do these things because as a white straight man with power and a quantum of money, he arbitrarily decides what morals apply to whom and when. We often act shocked when the so-called arbiters of morality turn out to break every moral rule they set for us. But that’s because we miss the point. They only enforce the rules for their benefit. The rules are not made to improve society; they are made for their makers. At no point in history has any positive change to the rights of human beings or to the accountability of our masters ever been acquired by appealing to the rules, or by playing by the rules, or by asking nicely. It does not happen. 

Miss Raton appeals to basic humanity, and it does her no good, because with a man like Chris, strong in his capacity for brutality and a weakling in his inability to admit to his own evil, that is not how it works. She says “You can’t do this.” He can. Belle says, “You can’t do this,” and of course he can because he’s been doing it the whole time. The point of his existence as the alpha male is that he can.

Peg lets the Woman go, and the Woman’s revolt is absolute, and bloody, and final, and it is the only resolution that allows Chris to lose. When he shoots himself in the foot shortly before she takes her bloody vengeance, it’s hard not to see that as a metaphor.

But then, there are so many pretty obvious metaphors in The Woman, so many callouts to a wider, if bleak, truth.

Men who style themselves as “alpha” imagine themselves as noble examples of animals in nature, but in nature, there is no such thing as an alpha wolf, and like any man who ever called himself an “alpha” ever, Chris shows himself neither human nor animal, but something that is in fact less. A rabid dog is horribly dangerous, and it can kill you, but it’s still a dog, and a deficient one whose only fate is to be put down. So it is with Chris.

In reviewing The Woman, Kier-La Janisse made the observation that the title could just as easily refer to the condition of womanhood, the Woman in the abstract, because of how the different ways that women in general are beaten down and forced to be complicit in their abuse are so ably and heartbreakingly presented in the movie. And it is true. There are no good men in this film, and the only good woman is powerless against a man’s violence. Only revolt and its ambivalent consequences remain.

Still. For a film as extreme and as violent as this, The Woman really is possessed of a remarkable subtlety. But it is a subtlety of demonstration, of showing you these terrible things, and asking you, are you really surprised?