31 January 2011

Lucky McKee's "The Woman," Horror, and Offense

I don't generally follow buzz out of Sundance, but I sat up and took notice when Lucky McKee's new film, "The Woman," started generating a hullabaloo last week. Co-authored by Jack Ketchum, author of The Girl Next Door, "The Woman" sounds like it's a real button-pusher. Writing at HitFix, Drew McWeeny notes that "'The Woman' outrages and offends with surgical skill."  He also offers a first-person account of the dustup that occurred at the midnight screening of the film at Sundance. In addition to numerous peaceful walkouts and one notable fainting episode, the film gave one guy a serious case of the rage virus, which a bystander recorded for posterity. To be fair, it does kind of suck that it's really tough to get away with having a giant temper tantrum in a public place these days. But even a casual glance at the first few minutes of the video evidence will tell you that  the rage virus takes you to a place beyond caring.

Given the McKee / Ketchum collaboration going on here, I'm not too surprised that "The Woman" is freaking people out. McKee's May, starring the luminous Angela Bettis, portrays an extremely oddball, so-wrong-she's-right female protagonist so skillfully that if you've got even the merest hint of an inner freak, you will be cheering. Clearly, McKee has a deep investment in understanding female desire and the ways in which it can lie beyond the pale.

That in itself is going to ruffle feathers.



And Jack Ketchum. The Girl Next Door came out in 1989. I remember the shelves at the bookstore in our local mall crammed with paperback copies of this book, the "x" in "next" rendered extra large and shiny. There have since been new editions, and a recent film version which Stephen King called "authentically shocking." A couple of years ago, I decided to read the novel. It was riveting and totally brutal. Jack Ketchum has mad skills when it comes to presenting human savagery. The Girl Next Door doesn't let you turn away until it's all over.

When you subject your audience to things they don't want to see, in a way that makes them care, that's powerful stuff. That's a recipe for the best kind of offense.

Most horror films only deal with the first part of the equation: showing us things we don't want to see. That's part of the titillation of horror. When it's done well, it can thrill you and leave you with a sense that regular reality has been disrupted.

Since I am super duper susceptible and easily freaked, I enjoy any film that takes the time to show me something I don't want to see, and that does it in a way that's convincing (The Exorcist), so over the top it becomes almost ballet-like (Neil Marshall's Doomsday), or so over the top it becomes hilarious and melds into slapstick-with-guts (Slither). There are other good, artful ways to show things we don't want to see. We don't necessarily care that much about the characters or about what happens to them (The Ring), but we are still engaged because what is happening is really disorienting, disturbing, or - a rare but always delightful trick - creates schadenfreude (Drag Me to Hell).

When a film or work of fiction makes us care - really care - that's when it has the potential to become true nightmare fuel. Because Stephen King is very, very great at creating characters that are easy to relate to, a lot of his work taps into this dynamic. The dad in The Shining - the role made famous by Jack Nicholson in the Kubrick adaptation - is fascinating because he's no better or worse than your everyday household tyrant. He's got the potential for violence, which he moderates until he can't any longer. A lot of us have dads like that. A lot of us are like that, or have felt like we could become that. So when things start getting supernatural in the story, the stakes are that much higher.


In print, it's not so rare to come across the magic combination of making us care and going to places we don't want to go. Back in the horror heyday of the 90s, writers like Poppy Z. Brite (you could do worse than read everything he ever wrote) and Kathe Koja did incredible things with that formula (and I understand that Kathe Koja is back in the saddle again: she is awesome buy all of her books posthaste!).

Filmakers face a set of different challenges when it comes to making us give a damn about their horror characters. Hollywood is still stuck in splatstick mode, for the most part. In an interview with Movieline, McKee talks about how this goes:

Horror films are starting to be treated like roller coaster rides at amusement parks. You go to a meeting in Hollywood and they’re like, “This is what we want to do — what do you think the good kills will be?”

Yikes. If that's the question you're asking, then chances are the kills won't be all that good.

Although I dearly love horror films and will keep seeing them, my heart soars when a horror filmmaker breaks out and makes something genuinely upsetting. When it comes right down to it, making us care and showing us what we don't want to see is not only a great formula for upsetting folks: it's also a great formula for raising consciousness - by which I mean making us think, but more specifically inviting us to go deeper in exploring the whys and wherefores of our lives.

I love horror because I want art that takes me by the shoulders and shakes me as hard as it can. I want to feel challenged. I want to wake up to new truths, or new shadows of truths.

This is where things get tricky. A lot of people who aren't horror fans or aren't attuned to the genre or have only seen the most superficial examples of the genre or base their opinions exclusively on that trailer for Alien Vs. Predator that they saw by accident a few years ago - well, they probably won't follow me here. Yes, the roller coaster model of horror movie making can simply create a shut down of sorts. The violence becomes merely cartoony, the whole thing loses its edge, and we find ourselves yawning through decapitation and murder and mayhem. Yes. But horror is uniquely situated to do the opposite of desensitization. It can really get you where you live.

Remember the kerfuffles around Pan's Labyrinth? (If you haven't seen Pan's Labyrinth, stop what you're doing and go see it immediately you will thank me.) This film is no more violent than others. Schindler's List had far more kills and way more graphic scenes in it. But it is really emotionally engaging. Personally, I grooved on it because it was booked into a Washington DC art house one of the years I was down there. The art house crowd was just totally unprepared for Guillermo del Toro. It blew them away.

What films like Pan's Labyrinth do, I think, is to resensitize us to violence. Where we've become jaded, we can become open and vulnerable again. This is a great thing.

Presenting the worst, most disturbing realities while making us care can invite us to become more conscious and more aware, not less. I know, I know. It's easier to be entertained sometimes. Sometimes, you just want to turn your brain off and shut down. Go watch yourself some Jerry Springer until you get that out of your system.

If you never challenge yourself, though, then how much can you expect to get out of your life? I like to think that we are here to think, understand, and process the art of being, not to simply confirm everything we already believe. This is the beauty of consuming art that makes you want to flinch: it invites you to ask why. This is the beauty of offense: it invites you to explore the borders of your personal tolerances. It turns the world upside down so you can look at it in a different way.

If there is no chance that what you're reading or watching will offend you on some level, then why bother? I feel the same way about comedy: if there is zero chance that it will offend someone (especially me), then I'm pretty sure there is zero chance that it's funny. I love seeing films and reading fiction and experiencing art that takes risks. If it goes too far for me, well, I'll applaud it even harder.

It sounds like The Woman is tailor made to evoke a strong response. In addition to posting those clips of that one dude's big freakout, McWeeny's article makes some very excellent points about what McKee is up to in this film. He writes:

"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.

If the film is about critiquing the way our culture supports the "smiling psychopath," then its plot seems aimed at exploring the consequences of this situation in thorough, brutal ways:

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."

Ironically, the guy who freaked out at the end of the movie spent a lot of time shouting about how the film degrades women (and men?). Apparently, it's an equal opportunity degradation. It is always disturbing when someone holds a mirror up to the dirtiest, grossest parts of humanity and forces you to take a look. After reading McWeeny's article, I was really looking forward to seeing this film. But I got even more excited after reading McKee's interview with MovieLine about his reasons for making The Woman:

the whole point of me making this film was that I’ve been tagged as a horror director but had never felt like I’d really made a horror film. And I was like, if you really want a horror film let’s get into some really scary stuff, and let’s not do it with monsters — let’s do it with people....The idea of it is that it’s supposed to get people to think about how they treat people, how they treat themselves. It’s supposed to spark that sort of stuff in an emotional way, and it’s supposed to scare you! There’s nothing more scary than a f*cking human being. We do some pretty awful things, and the thing that’s scary about it is we know what we’re doing, we’re conscious of it.

This is why I love horror as a genre, and why I hope more people will give the Jack Ketchums and the Lucky McKees of the world a shot and attention and wide distribution in theatres everywhere. Like nothing else, horror has the capacity to get to the heart of why we feel sad, alone, scared and upset with our lives. Because we are, as a species, as a culture, seriously fucked up, there will never be an end to our need for this type of storytelling. We have to process it somehow, you know? If we forget how to recoil from the seedier, more disgusting, and utterly unethical parts of ourselves, if we forget that we should recoil and reject those parts and embrace something better, then it will always be as crappy as it is right now.

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