In 2011, Lucky McKee made a little film called The Woman about a feral woman captured by a white man. In his attempts to tame her and make her ‘civilized,’ a disturbing and disgusting story unfolds about power. In her directorial debut, Pollyanna McIntosh continues to address issues of power in the sequel to The Woman, Darlin’.
McIntosh previously starred as the titular Woman in McKee’s 2011 film, so needless to say she’s familiar with the story of a feral cannibal living in the woods. While The Woman was about the Woman, Darlin’ is about, you guessed it, Darlin’ (Lauryn Canny). She is a young girl who was raised by the Woman (McIntosh reprises her role as the cannibal), so she is also a feral cannibal. However, she is deposited at a hospital for a soon-to-be-revealed reason (she’s pregnant) so she can get the care she needs to deliver a healthy baby. Despite her lifestyle, the Woman isn’t completely devoid of common sense.
But, the hospital doesn’t discover her pregnancy. They don’t know what to do with a girl with no records, so they ship her off to a Catholic boarding school for orphan girls. Here, the bishop (Bryan Batt) wishes to tame Darlin’ to show the healing power of Jesus Christ so his parish won’t be shut down. Jesus loves profiting off the lives of others. Here, Darlin’ is taught how to read, write, speak, and exist as what society deems as normal. But while Darlin’ is brainwashed by Catholicism, the Woman is searching the countryside for her and her unborn baby. The film switches between these two plot lines until their strange intersection.
Darlin’ is primarily a story about horrific abuses performed at the hands of the Catholic Church. While this isn’t news for most, McIntosh puts a new spin on it as the bishop exploits Darlin’ for money and, eventually, sexual favors. He is the typical image of a sleazy church official, who oozes cheesy charisma but instills fear in the hearts of all of his students. In placing such a topical and awful issue in Darlin’, McIntosh is able to expose the ridiculous nature of the Catholic Church and the horrendous lengths its leadership will go to try and prove, or get, something.
Canny’s performance as Darlin’ is what truly sells this film. She snarls, bites, and scuttles away on all fours, creating an unnerving but also sad image of young girl who is about to totally taken advantage of. Canny is able to make you care about this girl who can at first only communicate with facial expressions and growls. It is perhaps the best part of the film to watch Canny embody the character and change with her.
Every beat of this story is absolutely wild in a phenomenally entertaining way. McIntosh doesn’t just rely on gore in this film, but also sprinkles in moments of twisted comedy, such as when the Woman first rides in a car. She lets out animalistic howls and grips the dashboard, horrified by the mechanical beast. But perhaps the film’s most ambitious scene is when the Woman leads a group of homeless women to the church where Darlin’ lives. They break into the church in the middle of a First Communion ceremony and wreak total havoc. These scenes are outlandish and ridiculous, which make Darlin’ so unique. Sometimes the tone feels confused, as the story fluctuates from comedy to commentary about abuses of power to the point where it can feel a bit jarring. But it felt purposeful because this whole film is jarring. Nothing about Darlin’ is meant to make the audience feel comfortable.
Darlin’s downfall, though, comes in how much it leans on The Woman for context, which will leave new viewers confused. As someone who watched the previous film, Darlin’ made sense, in both story and style. But with flashbacks to the previous film and unanswered questions about who Darlin’ really is, there feels like there’s a missing piece. McIntosh tries to make this film stand on its own, but viewing, or at least reading up on, The Woman is necessary to fully enjoy Darlin’.
Darlin’ is an absolutely ridiculous film that totally worked for me because it is so weird and so over-the-top in such original ways. McIntosh wasn’t afraid to pull as many punches as possible to burst into the role of director. Where McKee wanted to paint a picture about the dangers of patriarchal family structures, McIntosh paints a picture of religious abuse. Yes, her message about the manipulation and abuses coming from the Catholic Church is obvious, but that’s the point. McIntosh isn’t going for subtlety. She’s going for all out disturbing.