The Woodsman. 2004. Directed by Nicole Kassell. Screenplay by Kassell & Steven Fechter; based on the play by Fechter.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Michael Shannon, & Benjamin Bratt. Dash Films/Lee Daniels Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 87 minutes.
Films concerning the themes of child abuse and paedophilia can either sensationalize things too much, be far too graphic, or they can simply miss the mark on saying anything worthwhile on the subject. Recently, a Danish film called For My Brother went hard at the topic, and while it was a solid film there were times it cut to the bone, hard. There’s also Asia Argento’s feature film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which wades into crazy territory, and perhaps touches a little too close to home at times for some to be completely comfortable watching.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Woodsman. On the outside what may appear as a star-laden cast, headed by the real life couple and wonderful actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is actually on the inside a difficult and compelling work of cinema which attempts to cut through the stigma and the rhetoric concerning sex offenders, hoping to offer not a solution but a view into the world of one of these men.
And let’s get it straight – director Nicole Kassell, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter whose play serves as the basis for the film, is not attempting in any way to glorify sex crimes or child abuse, nor is it working towards painting paedophiles in a sympathetic light. However, the story tries to give us a view into the world of a truly repentant man, albeit one that is confused and still unsure of what his life means, what is his true purpose, how he’s finally able to break through the barrier and become a normal person; if that is even possible. No answers are given here, though questions are asked. In the end, the main question Kassell and Fechter bring up is about the nature of redemption, if that’s attainable for men like Walter (Bacon), as well as whether society – despite its laws and guise if wanting to rehabilitate criminals – really allows these people a second chance. The answers, as I mentioned, do not come in any concrete form, and we shouldn’t expect them to either. Most of all, The Woodsman points out there are flaws in the way we do things, as a society, as concerned citizens, as personal critics, co-workers, cops, bosses, every role in between. Although, never do Kassell and Fechter let the reality of these crimes escape us, even in the film’s most empathetic/sympathetic moments. For all these things, this is an honest and raw story.
The strength of this film is built on Bacon’s performance. This is the role which carries all of the thematic weight. Not an easy performance to undertake. Many actors would probably have an aversion to these types of characters. Again, the writing and the execution in unison do not try to humanize paedophiles. On the contrary, Walter is presented as someone with troubling issues stemming out of childhood, a man that may not necessarily be a true child molester but one whose early sexual experiences shaped his adult sexuality in a damaging way. He is not some career paedophile, yet still, he is guilty. He is culpable in full for his crime, and never does the character evade responsibility. In fact, Bacon brings out the self-hatred of Walter. The disgust he feels for himself and his thoughts is always prevalent, coming out at times to cause him difficulty. Better still, Bacon is able to present Walter with compassion that doesn’t fall into trying to make him likeable – simply, we watch his struggle, and we see how his past informs every last moment of his present. Without an actor like Bacon this character could easily feel as if it were pandering. Instead, his depth gives Walter life and in a tough movie, filled to the brim with tough ideas and characters and dialogue and themes, this sort of performance is ultra important to its success.
Around Walter are some other interesting characters, not the least of which is Vicki (Sedgwick). Her character is just as compelling as Walter. Her own personal history with abuse plays into part of him and his experiences. In part, Vicki represents a way forward for him. Walter starts to see some of the effects, later in life, on those people that experienced sexual abuse first hand, and in a sense this offers perspective. Also, Vicki is another sense of redemption, in that he finds a normal relationship (both emotionally and sexually) with her and sees some way out of the rut in which he sits. She is a sense of possibility.
On the other side is Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def). He embodies the often hypocritical aspect of law enforcement, which at once essentially says there’s a possibility of rehabilitation (the fact we sentence people then let them free after a certain point suggests we believe this is possible as a society), and in opposition automatically (and perpetually) condemns offenders. Police are meant to remain objective, which is part of how they’re meant to emotionally stand back from the crimes and serve justice, whatever that means from case to case. Lucas does nothing except believe he’s waiting for Walter to reoffend, to sexually abuse a young girl and go back to prison, right where he sees him as belonging. Lucas is an interesting character and Mos Def does solid work with his performance, both calling to mind our own prejudices and thoughts as concerned citizens, as well as pointing out how the law is not always impartial and justice sometimes has too big of an eyeball instead of remaining blind.
Furthermore, the side plot of Candy (Kevin Rice) is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the screenplay. While the other characters surrounding Walter allow us a window into how sex offenders rehabilitate amongst the community, family, how they manage (if they ever do) to connect with people, Candy is a perspective on self-hatred and how Walter abhors himself, his actions, his crimes. SPOILER AHEAD: for instance, when Walter tracks down Candy and beats him, for a split second you can see him punching his own face in place of Candy, showing the hate he has for himself inside. This doesn’t excuse Walter of ANYTHING. Not at all, he gets no free ride for his crimes. What it does is illustrate, in conjunction with his meeting the little girl in her red coat, how someone like Walter may actually feel remorse, despite their urges, and that SOME offenders like him genuinely want to change.
There are many tough things to swallow in The Woodsman, most significantly its overall premise. However, with the subtle performance of Bacon in the lead role and the writing of Kassell and Fechter, this film reaches its destination. It will never reach everybody, though those it does reach will be affected, in many ways. You will not be compelled to feel sorry for paedophiles. This is not the aim of this movie. Though, you will start to feel as if there are other perspectives, other views on the subject, and Bacon may even make you feel sorry for this particular character. Certainly not going to appeal to everyone, maybe a small minority of viewers with open enough minds to watch something out of their wheelhouse. The main thing I can promise is that this is not an explicit or graphic film. It is respectful, subdued. The Woodsman takes on its nearly impossible plots and main story with a grace that is not often seen with these types of movies. For that alone it deserves to be seen, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll say this to my dying days, Bacon was robbed of a nomination at the Oscars (and all other awards) for his multi-faceted performance as Walter.