Trying to decide which character in The Woman is most terrifying is like trying to decide which flavor of mayonnaise you want to eat. It's a trick question, because no sane person actually wants to eat mayonnaise...especially if it comes in different flavors that still will taste like mayonnaise. The point is that the central conflict of The Woman is one of those situations where no one really wins, everyone really suffers, and it all comes together to form one of the most interesting horror films in years.
Over the past few years, I've occasionally wondered what was up with director Lucky McKee - who wowed me way back in 2002 with the wonderful human horror film May - who seemed to have fallen into a slump after that initial horror hit. But The Woman - which he co-wrote with author Jack Ketchum, who seems to specialize in sadism and real-world torture - is a dramatic statement that the director still has a lot to offer film fans from all walks of life.
Pollyanna McIntosh is featured as the title character, a cannibalistic woman of the forest who is captured and "trained" by a rural family. McIntosh is reprising a role that she originated in a less publicized and poorly-reviewed Ketchum adaptation, entitled Offspring, but it's easy to see who and what she is even if you don't know that. (I found out this was a sequel about 30 minutes into the film, and didn't consider that a drawback to this film at all.) The actress physically transforms into the terrifying character, and it's pretty near impossible for the viewer to recognize her supermodel-esque stature as she writhes through the film as the monstrous man-eater. Silent and demonic isn't a new task for a horror antagonist, but McIntosh's woman is one of the more unique and unsettling visions I've seen in a long, long time.
I almost stopped myself when I called McIntosh the antagonist a moment ago, because - as I mentioned at the top of this review - those who oppose her are terrifying in their own way. The main oppressor is the patriarch of the family played by Sean Bridgers, a lanky actor who seems kind of goofy by Hollywood standards and is kind of a mixture of Will Ferrell and Anthony Perkins. Bridgers is a demanding father who rules through passive means (when he's not getting physical with his kids, wife, and captive), and the progression from kind-of-a-dick to full-fledged sociopath that his character makes is handled perfectly throughout the film. Bridgers is such a natural in the role that I'd imagine he's one of those people who would creep me out if I ran into him on the street, even though I know he's just an actor.
(In the same vein as that last comment, I'd like to point out that I'd also never, ever, no matter how supermodel she looks, put anything near McIntosh's mouth. Even though I know she's just an actor too.)
The father's family are made up of several scared and confused young folks, led by May star Angela Bettis as his wife and Lauren Ashley Carter and Zach Rand as their elder children. Bettis gives a frail performance as the wife, who is the victim of a few of his assaults, while the children represent opposite ends of the spectrum of abuse. When the father lets them all know that this beast of a woman is trapped on their property, we get to witness the varied reactions of his family - and how they deal with that knowledge in their own ways sells the film's perspective quite well.
With a terrifying physical specimen on one end of the story and an uncontrollable male with no conscience on the other, the questions that are raised by The Woman become more complex and more thought-provoking as the film goes on. There are several details - specifically in the final act - that are left to the viewer to interpret in their own ways. This will probably confuse and bewilder some viewers, and I admit that I had to take pause and wonder if I missed something along the way at a couple of moments, but the final conflicts of the film speak their own language to the viewer. There's plenty of blood and guts as the arrangement between the family and the woman finally is shaken up, and it all leads to a satisfying, if not open-ended, conclusion.
When I put the events of the film together in retrospect - and I had to "sleep on it" to really get everything straight in my head - The Woman stands up as one of the more fascinating films I've seen in a long time. There's so much said about human cruelty and nature vs. nurture and even gender roles - perhaps my first reaction to the film was to feel like my own gender has never done anything right for our female counterparts - in The Woman, and almost all of it is handled with care by Ketchum and McKee.
The Woman is surely not a popcorn horror film that viewers will want to consume often, but I didn't think it was as heavy as some of Ketchum's other works (I'm still debating whether I'll ever feel safe to watch The Girl Next Door again) and it's pretty accessible for horror fans of all types. I can't recommend it enough.
(Oh, the trailer just reminded me of one complaint that's pretty minor. I wasn't wild about the soundtrack. I like that the film doesn't have your average horror movie score with all the pulsating and screaming, but the indie rock/emo thing bugged me after a while. I'm not sure what I'd have done differently, but at times I was concerned the film was trying to dictate my emotions via music, and it took away from the film at times.
But, that doesn't change the fact that this is a must-see horror film. So see it!)