When Chris Cleek discovers a feral woman living alone in the wilderness, he does what any grudgingly progressive American family man would do. He throws a net over her head, chains her up in his fruit cellar, and tasks his family with the process of civilizing her.
This goes about as well as you’d expect.
The film’s premise is familiar territory for writer Jack Ketchum, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Lucky McKee. It resurrects The Woman from his novel Offspring, and the treatment she receives from her captors recalls the events of The Girl Next Door, his infamous work based on the murder of Sylvia Likens in 1965. His novella Right to Life, while arguably even grislier than its predecessor, imagines a happier end to a similar scenario. Here, in collaboration with McKee, he posits a much stranger outcome. The film isn’t pleasant, but for those with the stomach for it, the destination is fucked up in all the right ways.
Chris’s family is nonplussed when he reveals the savage, half-naked woman he’s strung up against the cellar wall. They set about the chores he assigns them with various levels on enthusiasm, almost as if they’ve taken in a new pet. While it’s unclear at first how they could adjust to these circumstances so easily, it’s obvious that something disturbing in the family dynamic is being repressed. It’s no surprise when the extreme violence perpetrated in the barn and the emotional violence inflicted in the home collide, with The Woman providing a key role in catharsis.
It’s an uneven film, prone to syrupy fades, affected characterization, and clumsy exposition. But the dissonance ultimately works in its favor, giving the film a dream-like quality that distances the audience from the violence. Through any other lens, the events depicted in the film, and the darker truths only hinted at, would be exploitative. As it stands, The Woman is a relentless, unforgivable guilty pleasure. It’s a modern day fairy tale for the truly weird.