Small-town lawyer Chris Cleek encounters a feral and savage young woman while on a hunting trip. He abducts her and holds her captive in his cellar with the intention of “civilizing” her, enlisting his family (his wife, son and two daughters) as willing and unwilling accomplices. It soon turns out that Chris Cleek’s definition of “civilizing” runs more along the lines of “brutalization”; the process of “taming” the wild woman has repercussions for his wife and children, and causes unpleasant family secrets to come to light.

I think I’ve said this before, but it makes my heart glad when I hear that a horror film has been denounced at some film festival or another; I believe the horror genre will ultimately wither and die if there’s no taboo line to cross and if there’s no pale to go beyond, so the news that there are sensibilities left to offend is good news. This year, the festival was Sundance and the movie was The Woman, the latest effort from Lucky McKee, adapted from a novel McKee wrote in collaboration with Jack Ketchum, himself no stranger to provocation. (Something has clearly clicked between the two, this being the third Ketchum adaptation McKee’s been attached to; he previously produced Chris Siverston’s film of The Lost and helmed Red for weeks before being inexplicably replaced.)

The Woman is ostensibly a sequel to an earlier Ketchum adaptation, Offspring (whose director, Andrew van den Houten, is credited as one of The Woman’s producers), but it stands entirely on its own with no knowledge of the earlier film needed. The Woman combines Ketchum’s unflinching sense of the violence that occurs between the sexes with McKee’s feminist leanings, and the result is a film that is almost overflowing with social commentary. The goal seems to be to rip the doors off the façade erected by the well-to-do, white, and (socially, not necessarily politically) conservative and expose the hypocrisy and ugliness that lurks within. As we learn more about the Cleek family, it becomes obvious that, ultimately, there’s very little separating the family patriarch and the unnamed Woman he has chained up in his root cellar. Chris is just cleaner, has better diction and wears a tie.

However, what separates The Woman from many other examples of recent provocative cinema (The Human Centipede (First Segment) springing immediately to mind), the brutality’s as much emotional as physical. (Which isn’t to say that the film’s light on gore: there’s plenty of nausea-inducing viscera, courtesy of Robert Kurtzman, who’s rarely been better.) And unlike most examples of “empowerment through castration,” the commentary is rarely heavy-handed or preachy, and neither gender walks away with clean hands.

The primary cast is excellent. Pollyanna McIntosh (reprising her minor role from Offspring) is fierce, feral and defiant in the title role–you can readily imagine her character being literally raised by wolves–and her performance is honest and brave. (The last performances I saw that so richly earned those adjectives were of the leading roles in Martyrs.) Sean Bridgers (unrecognizable from what I’d consider his signature role, that of Johnny Burns on Deadwood) is remarkable as Chris; he as convincing as a smiling, well-dressed guy-next-door as he is a depraved sociopath, and he never reduces his character to a stereotype.

But the real revelation, at least to me, was McKee’s longtime muse Angela Bettis, as Chris’s wife Belle. I tend to associate her with “lovable freak” roles such as May Canady (May) and Ida Teeter (MoH: “Sick Girl”). Here, she’s completely straight, or at least she is on the surface. But, as with Chris, there’s a lot roiling and bubbling under that surface, and Bettis is very effective at only occasionally showing what’s really going on. (There’s only one scene in which Belle completely blows her cool, and it’s electrifying–easily the most memorable scene in the entire film.)

I don’t think the supporting cast is as successful. Zach Rand is decent as son Brian–he’s good but this is not exactly a starmaking performance. Lauren Ashley Carter, as older daughter Peggy, actually does fairly well in her line readings, but unfortunately she only seems capable of two facial expressions. Carlee Baker is mostly flat and unconvincing as one of Peggy’s teachers, until her fiery confrontation with the Cleek family, which she plays rather well.

There’s also a couple of missteps on the other side of the camera. McKee’s distinctive style is evident throughout, but in the early stages of the film his trademarks tend to get in the way and slow the film down too much. His affinity for grungy, bluesy indie-rock scores also results in a few almost comically inappropriate musical cues courtesy composer Sean Spillane.

While there are a few flaws (and overall, I don’t believe The Woman is as good as May), they don’t detract much from what is an audacious and singular accomplishment on the part of the filmmakers and the cast. For those who might feel a lack of confidence in the modern American horror film, The Woman serves as potent proof that there’s still life in the old beast.

My rating: 10 of 10.

101 minutes. Directed by Lucky McKee. Starring Pollyanna McIntosh, Sean Bridgers, Angela Bettis, Lauren Ashley Carter, Carlee Baker, Alexa Marcigliano, Zach Rand, Shyla Molhusen.

THE WOMAN poster.

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