Warning: this review doesn’t get too bogged down in plot synopsis as I’ve already done that in my review of the novel which you can read here.
Film adaptation is tricky business. If you’re too slavish in your retelling the film becomes pointless, as the story already exists in another medium, but if you diverge too far from the source material, the internet rises up and starts a petition (or what ever it is they do). Additionally, adapting your own work adds an extra dimension of risk (I know it has its defenders, but I’m 90% sure the shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games was just Haneke eager to hang out with Naomi Watts in her underoos). For all its perils, however, the risk of the screen adaptation is one of the many reasons Lucky McKee’s new film, The Woman, succeeds.
How can adaptation be a strength in and of itself, you ask? When said adaptation opens new avenues of understanding into both of the texts. The source material in this case is the recent Jack Ketchum/Lucky McKee novel The Woman. But while the novel is a bleak and unrelenting meditation on the depths of human depravity and the hypocrisy of “civilized” society, the film plays like a pitch-black serio-comic satire of suburban life and America’s reliance on the traditional view of patriarchy.
The miraculous part of these divergent tones (tragedy v. comedy) is that both the novel and film are virtually identical in plot and structure. There are small changes here and there, but the story plays out exactly the same up until the ultraviolent climax.
The two versions of The Woman feel like a case study in auteurship. By this I mean that, regardless of how integral the co-authors actually were in creating each version, the novel very much feels like Jack Ketchum’s The Woman and the film feels like Lucky McKee’s The Woman. There’s a level of artistic vision in each project that allows both to stand freely on their own.
McKee’s direction is tight enough that the dashes of humor and quirky flourishes never seem forced or out of place, and much of this seamlessness is due in large part to the film’s music. Written and composed concurrently with the film, the soundtrack is filled with lyrical and tonal juxtapositions that may be jarring at first (especially the “bow-chicka-wow-wow” love theme that accompanies in the scene where Cleek first discovers the feral Woman) but soon mesh and become inextricable from the final product.
Also worthy of praise is the cast. Rarely do horror films have casts where the entire ensemble is of note, but The Woman has one. Pollyanna McIntosh plays the titular, (mostly) non-speaking Woman with a mix of primal detachment and animalistic heroism. Long time McKee collaborator Angela Bettis is as alluring and neurotically supercharged as ever, an underutilized talent if there ever was one. It’s a tough job to play a character as loathsome and disgusting (and charismatic) as Chris Cleek without delving into camp, but Deadwood’s Sean Bridgers brings a manic “Ward Cleaver-meets-Charles Manson” vibe to the role that just works. The younger members of the cast are all great. Lauren Ashley Carter, Zack Rand and Shyla Molhusen (possibly the cutest child actor ever in a horror movie) are all young folk who play young folk very well—a legitimately rare talent.
McKee has been on everyone’s radar for nearly a decade (his first film, the excellent May was released back in 2002) and I believe with The Woman he has finally made good on his promise of greatness. McKee’s had some near-misses (there are parts of 2006’s The Woods that work, some that don’t) and false starts (he was removed from the flawed-but-good Jack Ketchum adaptation Red, before he could finish) along with some legitimate, good work (his Masters of Horror episode is among the best of the two seasons), but nothing that compares to this: his best film yet.
After fielding a question about his painful experience with Red, McKee had this to say during the Q&A regarding The Woman: “I just wanted to make my Jack Ketchum movie.” Well, you’ve done more than that: you’ve made what feels like the first Lucky McKee movie since May.
It’s a brave film, not just because of its extreme subject matter but also the risks that it takes with the genre. It’s a film that will probably alienate as many as it wows, “hardcore” horror fans included. In my opinion, there is no higher praise.