Women in peril stories have been on the rise in Hollywood. The problem is that the creators aren't really doing anything new with the concept. I didn't hate Sucker Punch, but that was cookie cutter beyond the fantasy visuals for this kind of story. Death Proof subverted the genre by slavishly sticking to its conventions. The less said about remakes of films like The Last House on the Left, the better. On this edition of Instant Watch, we're going to focus on three recent movies that take the grindhouse women in peril conceit to whole new levels. Some go for metaphor and social commentary. Others go for brutality and genuine threats to safety. They're all unsettling films, but it would be foolish to write them all off as exploitation sight unseen because of their cinematic lineage. All three are available to stream right now on Netflix Instant.
The Woman (2011)
Horror writer/director Lucky McKee teamed up with horror novelist Jack Ketchum to continue the story of a family of cannibals living in the woods of Maine. The Woman in the title is the last member of the clan. She is discovered by a domineering and sexist lawyer who hatches a plan to capture and "civilize" the feral woman.
The Woman is not an easy film to watch. Steer clear if you cannot handle violence and abuse used for a greater narrative purpose. I do not think the film comes close to being exploitation, but it does muddy its waters a bit too often with humorous asides that belie the greater thrust of the story.
The lawyer in question is a husband and father with three kids: two girls and a boy. Though the movie starts out with demonstrations of how everyone in the family carries equal weight and responsibility, it becomes painfully obvious that the women in the family are taken advantage of. The father reigns with verbal and physical abuse toward the oldest girl and the wife while letting his adolescent son get away with anything except for insubordination.
By the time the Woman herself is chained up in the cellar, the stakes are clear. Either the father or the Woman will win. Everyone else--teachers, neighbors, pets, and family alike--are potential casualties of a battle between a totally independent woman and a man who believes he deserves total control.
The power dynamics between the two are the crux of The Woman. Pollyanna McIntosh, as the Woman, is a dynamo on screen. With the exception of a few nonsense words, she single-handily makes you believe the premise of the movie. This Woman could exist because she's McIntosh paints her as smart, strong, and tough enough to handle any obstacle. Sean Bridges is her equal in every way as the lawyer/father. Only he can go toe to toe with the Woman and survive. The differences between the two define the conflict of the movie and set everything into motion.
There are two big issues with The Woman that cannot be ignored. First is the sound design. Everything is either very quiet or very loud. There is no middle ground and it's irritating. You go from barely understanding the family to reaching for the remote control because the sudden wave of obnoxious sound might wake your neighbors across the street. The result is not a scare but an immediate separation from the action of the film.
More pressing is the social narrative. Ketchum and McKee were not subtle in how they painted the characters to represent elements of a typical feminist response to a woman in peril movie. Though McKee once again proves he is a master of creating believable relationships onscreen, the dynamics between characters work in spite of poor symbolic writing. If this is meant to be allegory, it has all the complexity of an elementary school reading textbook. It's a distraction that can lead some people to wonder why a film with this level of violence exists at all.
Look past the surface level of The Woman and you might see something more. It is an intelligent and socially conscious horror movie that uses the lens of sexism and cult/exploitation movies to comment on how dangerous those attitudes are in society. It's meta revenge horror that refuses to give you a real moment of triumph. In the real world, one conflict within a small family won't change the world. Why should it work that way in film?
Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Emily Browning has not had a pleasant film career after the unanticipated failure of Lemony Snicket on the big screen. She's been abused by a wicked stepmother and a ghost in her childhood home. She's been abused by her stepfather and locked away in a mental institution after witnessing a murder. And now, thanks to Netflix, you can see her abused by an unending sea of strange men as she becomes a fantasy escort in a club with one rule: no penetration.
Sleeping Beauty is a pointless meditation on sexual politics. Lucy (Browning) is a college student working a ton of meaningless part time jobs to make the rent. She waits tables, copies files in an office, and undergoes medical experiments involving tubes shoved down her throat by a man for cash. She finds an ad for a company paying top dollar for pretty young women to serve men. Cue nipple bearing outfits and the job requirement to coordinate lipstick colors with the part of the body the clients can see but cannot touch.
I believe that writer/director Julia Leigh came up with a great concept for Sleeping Beauty. The title refers to an extra service provided by the club. A man can pay for time alone with a pretty young woman who is drugged into an unyielding sleep. One of the only interesting things to happen in the story is the escalation of risk taken with Lucy as the clients become more comfortable with her.
However, ten minutes of plot device does not a feature film make. Leigh pads out the story with Julia walking to class, Julia waking to her apartment, Julia answering the phone, Julia wiping tables, Julia doing drugs, Julia getting yelled at in the office, Julia drinking with a sick friend, and Julia showing absolutely no emotion until the final scene of the movie. When I say nothing happens of any importance in this film, I mean nothing.
Sleeping Beauty is beautifully designed. The use of colors in set decoration is impressive. In the real world, Julia is made to look plain and uninteresting with her pale skin and dull red hair. In the club, Julia is the fairest of all the girls. The greens, blues, and creams that surround her make her pop while dragging down the black clad, dark haired, tanned co-workers not chosen for the top tier service.
If only this level of execution was saved for a story that could hold your interest. Sleeping Beauty wants to be more important than it is. It wants to comment on the power struggle between beautiful women and much older men within the context of sexual dynamics. It wants to decry the plight of the young women seduced into prostitution with gifts and money. It wants to convince you that Lucy is a fascinating and flawed character who you want to wake up before it's too late. Sleeping Beauty fails at all of that. It is a beautiful and empty shell of a film that cries out for substance in every repetitive scene.
I can't think of another director who has made his career out of putting people through very bad things. Though women carry the brunt of the abuse, The Five Obstructions proved that Lars takes his inspiration from human suffering regardless of gender. The female protagonist in a Lars von Trier film will cry, suffer, and cry some more without so much as a happily ever after.
Melancholia is an exception only because there are two female protagonists who get put in tremendous danger. Justine (Kirsten Dunst) is getting married at a ceremony arranged by her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). While the ceremony starts out happy despite a late arrival by the bride and groom, things turn sour quickly when Justine and Claire's mother gives a speech so heinous that it sets off Justine's melancholia. Justine becomes convinced that something bad is going to happen very soon. She thinks that stars are disappearing from the sky and that life might not be worth living anymore.
Melancholia is Lars von Trier's continued exploration of genre filmmaking after the horror of Antichrist. This time, we're in science fiction territory. A new planet is discovered called Melancholia that has been hiding behind the sun opposite Earth's orbit for years. A few days after the wedding, it's predicted to either just pass by or crash right into the surface of the Earth.
Lars von Trier crafts an interesting balancing act between an existential crisis--Justine's vision of self-worth in a world where she can predict all the bad things that will happen to people--and an actual threat--a planet is about to destroy life on earth. The combination is tight as can be. The dual narratives allow for the two protagonists to coexist in a typical von Trier scenario: you live with each other but you have no idea what is really going on until it's too late.
Gainbourg and Dunst are more than up to the challenge of balancing the stories. You can't take your eyes off of them when they're onscreen. The two do not steal focus from each other and justify the 50/50 split of the two part film with their incredible acting.
Melancholia might be Lars von Trier's most beautiful film to date. The opening sequence is a series of moving portraits and photographs that tell you exactly what is going to happen in the movie. Those scenes are recreated in gorgeous and unexpected ways. While Justine was shown floating down the river in her wedding dress, she really just takes a bath with her veil on. However, a horse shown slowly falling to its knees by a bridge really does slowly drop down to its knees by a bridge. This "will it or won't it" prediction device was a huge risk that pays off in a big way. When you realize the actual perspective of this montage--literally where these angles are coming from--you're might gasp like I did.
Melancholia is perhaps a bit too slow and absurd in its approach to science fiction to be of interest to some genre fans. The real target audience is von Trier fans who want a less violent experience than the bloody Antichrist. Melancholia is clearly in the same thematic universe but written in the style of his earlier work. If nothing else, it demonstrates how science fiction can be used as a means to explore real world issues in believable ways.
So, did I miss any big new Netflix Instant releases on the theme? Have you seen any of these movies yourself? Let me know what you think. Sound off below.