Sundance review: Lucky McKee's 'The Woman' outrages and offends with surgical skill at midnight
PARK CITY - So, anyway, that happened.
I wish even a fifth of the press who fought to get those tickets for "Red State" Sunday night had fought just as hard to get into the midnight Library screening of Lucky McKee's "The Woman." Then again, the very nature of Lucky's work has somewhat marginalized him in the first place, so I guess it was fitting that people are ranting out there about having seen a "subversive and dark horror movie" tonight at this festival, while the truly piercing piece of horror filmmaking that screened was nearly ignored.
Lucky McKee is, without question, a radical feminist horror filmmaker. All you need to do is go back to his first feature "May" and then work your way forward. His sensitivity towards his actresses, and the perspective each of his films takes, is practically political. He returns to themes of power inequality and gender struggle, and he externalizes his subtext. He has been consistent in his interests, and as a result, he hasn't been making $50 million studio films. He doesn't seem terribly interested in remaking something or doing the easy jump-scare thing, and that can lead to some very difficult years for any horror filmmaker.
"The Woman," written by Jack Ketchum and McKee, is a fable about the smiling psychopath that our society is built to support, and the women he keeps under his thumb in his home. The entire film's tone is somewhat heightened, the color palette jacked up, and the entire thing playing out more like a remembered dream than a literal story. It is harrowing in a way that few horror films are for me these days, emotionally demanding. It is extreme, but more in terms of the psychology and the toll on the personalities of the characters than in terms of overt onscreen violence.
Well, that's not completely true. Things do eventually go totally mad-dog savage red, but McKee spends a long time turning up the tension before that, and in ways that violate taboo in an almost off-hand way. It's a film that feels dirty, upsetting. Because the film is ultimately about what happens when you render someone powerless, and what could happen if that power ever shifts back again, it is important for McKee to make his audience feel powerless. And he does. Completely. It's the sort of film that just sits in the pit of your stomach, slow-burning, and each time a line is crossed, you have to reassess just how far the film is willing to go.
I am not a fan of abuse in a film for the sake of it, and beyond that, I have written before at length about the numbing effect of the way most indie filmmakers use rape for shock or, in the worst cases, titillation. As a fan of exploitation cinema, I find myself having to excuse a whole lot of things in order to enjoy what I enjoy about the films, and there are times, especially at a festival like Fantastic Fest, where you realize just how unwelcoming much of the exploitation world can be for a female audience. It's just non-stop and for the most part, lazy. It is fair to say that the horror genre tends to victimize women far more than empower them, and that it's often done without thought.
"The Woman" is nothing if not carefully calculated. Every beat of the film, every gradual escalation of the story and the tension and the sickness is calibrated for maximum effect. There are some really blunt-force-trauma sexual politics at play in the film, which is evident from the set-up itself. Chris Cleek is a soft-featured family man, and Sean Bridgers does an amazing job in the role. He is as nauseating a character as I've seen in a film in quite a while, and it's the little touches that really make the performance special. He is hunting one afternoon in the woods near his house when he sees a feral, animal-like woman, filthy and wounded, washing herself in the creek. One look at her naked torso, and he never looks back. A plan occurs to him, fully formed, and he starts by going home and modifying the cellar of his barn. He tells his family he's going to bring home a surprise, and right away, there's something about this family that just feels fundamentally broken. His wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and his daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) are both like ghosts, barely there, cowed by something, while his son Brian (Zach Rand) is blank-faced, filled with cruelty, barely able to pretend to be human. If that's where they start, then imagine where they end up after Chris reveals his surprise: he has captured the feral Woman (the remarkable Pollyanna McIntosh), and he has her bound in the cellar, where they are going to, as a family, "fix her."
From that basic scenario, McKee and Ketchum extract every single bit of unease and discomfort, and in doing so, he pushes the audience to a place where they have no choice but to address the outrageous disparity in power between the men in the movie and the women. Even a character as initially strong as Ms. Raton, Peggy's teacher, is stripped of her power immediately upon confronting Chris, who gradually turns up the crazy over the course of the film. It's like The Woman is a battery, sending out this field that makes all of the people in the family drop their thin veneer of civilization, and the more time they spend around her, the more they drop into a state of blatant savagery.
It's elegantly made, and while I found the movie intellectually engaging, what surprised me was the visceral reaction I had. Not only did I find myself adrenalized by the last half hour of the film, it was to such an extent that I was literally shaking by the time McKee brings the entire thing to a conclusion. I had a base level animal reaction to what I was watching that reached past both text and subtext to provoke that fight-or-flight part of the brain, and the catharsis offered by the ending is nothing as simple as a typical revenge movie.
And I'm not the only one it pushed, evidently.
That video has been making the rounds since mid-day yesterday, and I certainly helped with that. I've sent the link out to several people, and I've seen it retweeted over and overall, as well as embedded in articles about "the incident" at the screening. The thing is, that video starts after Captain Indignant has already been removed from the theater by security. If that's all the story you're running, that's not the story. I know, because I was unfortunately part of it.
Let me set the scene. The film has caused a steady stream of walk-outs while it's running, which shouldn't surprise anyone. If a film pushes me to the place where I'm having involuntary physical reactions, and I'm as jaded to the horror genre as I am, then I would imagine it must have been overwhelming for people who aren't as comfortable with the extreme. The last walkout, probably twenty minutes before the end of the movie, was a young woman who was in such a panic to get out of the theater that she slipped and smashed her head. They were momentarily afraid they were going to have to give her CPR because of how hard she went down. Finally, the film ended, and the credits began to roll, and before anyone could even start to move toward the stage for the Q&A, Captain Indignant stood up directly in front of me.
And he began to scream.
"THIS MOVIE DEGRADES WOMEN! THIS MOVIE DEGRADES MEN! YOU ARE SICK! THIS IS NOT ART! YOU ARE SICK! THIS IS A DISGUSTING MOVIE! SUNDANCE SHOULD BE ASHAMED! HOW DARE YOU SHOW THIS!"
I've tried playing back the incident and breaking down how long actually elapsed. I can't, though. It's one of those moments that is distorted by that adrenaline that was already coursing through me, already so strong that I could feel the vein in the side of my neck pulsing, and having this guy stand above me, showering me in his spit of self-righteousness, and it felt like ten minutes went by of no one reacting to this lambasting of the filmmakers.
"WHO WOULD MAKE THIS? WHY WOULD ANYONE EVER SHOW THIS? I WOULD LIKE EVERY PERSON IN THIS AUDIENCE TO GET UP AND COME WITH ME SO WE DON'T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS SICK MIND!"
I heard someone suddenly yell back, even louder than him, "WHY DON'T YOU SIT DOWN AND SHUT THE F**K UP AND LET THE FILMMAKER HAVE HIS SAY?"
And when the guy looked down at me, shocked, I realized it was me who yelled it.
"ARE YOU SAYING YOU LIKED THAT MOVIE?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I did."
From a few rows behind me, I heard someone loudly and clearly say, "Then you're sick, too." That seemed to be all the fuel Captain Indignant needed, and he sneered at me.
"THEN YOU HAVE NO MORAL COMPASS, AND I FEAR FOR ANYONE IN YOUR LIFE."
Like I said… I get what was happening to him. The movie hit him so deeply, in such a private place, that he was lashing out to try and maintain some sense of balance. He wasn't intentionally disrupting things. He was out of control in every sense of the phrase.
But when he said that, when he went from freaking out about the movie to making a judgment call about me being a hazard to my family, he pushed that same defensive spot in me, and suddenly I was standing, face to face with him, and anyone who has ever heard me raise my voice knows that there are few people louder than me, especially when you bring my family into things.
I can't tell you exactly what we bellowed at each other. I can tell you that the moment I stood, he realized his mistake and began a sort of withdrawal. I know I told him that Sundance invited McKee as a guest, and that the film had obviously worked because his reaction was expressing just how well it worked on him, and that there was a way to express his disgust that didn't involve hijacking someone else's premiere. And again… I can't reliably tell you how much time passed.
I just know that as I was standing there, determined not to listen to any more of his rancor, the thing that really bothered me was knowing that in a field like horror, you can get ahead if you're willing to make the "typical" horror film, and if you don't really care about the sexual politics of the genre. Lucky McKee is the last guy anyone who really grasps text and subtext can accuse of being anti-woman. He has probably suffered in his professional life precisely because he does view things through a feminist prism, and to accuse him of degrading women without even attempting to understand the context… that's just wrong.
Finally, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I turned to realize there were two security guards in the theater. One of them smiled at me and said, "Thanks. We'll take care of him now."
I sat back down, even shakier than when I stood, and watched as Captain Indignant backed away from security. Keep in mind, by this point, this guy's been on his feet ranting at the top of his voice for a good seven or eight minutes, and yet his first response was to drop back into his seat, pull out his cell phone, and pretend to be checking messages. The security guards leaned in. "Sir?" Nothing. He was pretending they weren't there. I'm surprised he didn't stick his fingers in his ears and go "NAH NAH NAH I AM NOT LISTENING TO YOU." But his act didn't help.
UPDATE: There are now two videos, piecing together the very tail end of the incident. In the one you saw above, he was already in the hallway, but now you can also see the final moments of him being escorted out of the theater itself by security, and you'll be able to hear the crowd's reaction to his disruption by this point. I didn't remember the particular zingers from the crowd, but the guy who posted the link in our comments section is right... the woman at the end of the video has one of the best lines of the night:
The most touching part of the entire incident was when Lucky then walked up to the front of the theater. All the women from the film then jumped up and got between Lucky and the crowd and raised their fists, ready to fight for him. I think that says it all.
I'd like to apologize to Lucky and to his amazing cast and crew for being part of that, but I have no apology to offer to Captain Indignant. If he really wanted to debate the film's content in the Q&A, he could have. He didn't want a debate, though. He was responding with his lizard brain, all instinctive bluster and outrage, and he was accusing these people of practically being criminals because of this piece of art of theirs. That's not the spirit of Sundance or any festival. When you buy a ticket here, you never know what you're going to get, but there's certainly a good chance you'll be provoked, pushed out of your comfort zone. And I know we live in an age where horror is, nine times out of ten, safe and pedestrian and predictable and anything but scary or upsetting.
McKee is the real deal, though. He means to wound. And "The Woman" is what happens when an artist gets good enough at their craft to land every punch hard enough to leave scars.
I hope you have a chance to judge for yourself soon. In the meantime, any potential distributor should just release that YouTube clip as the teaser trailer and slap the title and a date at the end of it after the guy talks about how the film should be seized and burned.
Sounds like an endorsement to me.